Rsnapshot: A remote filesystem snapshot utility written in perl


rsnapshot is an open source filesystem snapshot utility for making backups of local and remote systems, licenced using the GNU General Public Licence and written in perl. Using rsync1 and hard links, it is possible to keep multiple, full backups instantly available while only taking the time, disk space and network bandwidth of incremental backups. rsnapshot is an excellent example of perl being used as glue.


Some years ago, Mike Rubel, frustrated at how hard it is to make backups on a budget, wrote a little shell script2. Essentially, his script called rsync to make backups into directories on another filesystem, linked the files in them together, and rotated those backups so that he could easily see that, eg, this particular backup is from three days ago. In 2003, Nathan Rosenquist took Rubel's idea, rewrote it in perl adding several features - such as having an external config file instead of embedding the configuration in variables in the shell script - and released it to the world under the GPL on Sourceforge as rsnapshot. Then in late 2005, when Rosenquist was getting too busy to maintain it, he asked for volunteers to take over. I volunteered.

How it works

Before I talk about how rsnapshot works, I need to talk about hard links and Unix filesystems.

Why use it

Everyone knows the value of backups and indeed of having multiple backups. Unfortunately, good backups - by which I mean frequent regular backups which are easy to restore from - are too difficult and expensive for a great many users.

Traditionally, backups have used tape, requiring expensive equipment - and without really expensive equipment backing up large amounts of data is not feasible. This matters, because the price of disks has plummeted recently to the point where a Terabyte costs well under £600, and with the proliferation of digital photographs and videos in the home and other digital data in business, that space gets used. Home users normally use CDs or DVDs for backup, but those are low capacity and require manual feeding of media into the machine, so while you might start off with the best of intentions, frequent regular backups often fall by the wayside. And of course with tape, CD and DVD, you can't just restore a file. You first need to find and insert the right medium. If you use incremental backups you might need to cycle through several tapes to restore one file. And CDs, DVDs and cheap tapes all fail far too often for my tastes. It's all a gigantic pain in the backside.

rsnapshot's backups live on an ordinary filesystem, usually on a cheap machine with lots of disks which is dedicated to the job. The disks are usually mirrored or use RAID5. This means that you never have to swap media, so with no manual intervention required, backups can go in cron jobs and still work even if you're still down the pub and haven't put blank media in the machine. You'll never forget to make them, or say "it can wait until the morning" and you'll get emails notifying you of any errors. Nor will you accidentally insert the wrong tape and have the backup fail - or worse, overwrite a backup. Best of all, because your backups are on a filesystem, they are instantly available. The trick with hard links means that they all look like full backups. This makes restoring files easy. You can even give your users NFS access to the backups so they can restore their own data without coming and whinging at you.

There is also support for running pre- and post-backup scripts, which are particularly useful for tasks like backing up databases.

Who uses it

Lots of people use rsnapshot for all the above reasons. Some of them may surprise you. There are several hundred people on the mailing list which all users are encouraged to join. We can conservatively assume that as many again use it without being on the list, for a total of well over a thousand users. Most, of course, are individuals or very small companies. But we also have:

Why you might not want to use it

Naturally, rsnapshot, being software, has to be hateful in some way. It has three main limitations:

  1. It is a filesystem backup, not a machine backup. It won't backup information like the boot record;
  2. Hard links within the data being backed up are broken. You can prevent this by making rsnapshot pass the -H option to rsync, but this is not done by default because it makes things very slow and requires huge amounts of memory. In fact I can't use it myself because the amount of data I'm backing up makes this option require more than is possible in a 32 bit address space;
  3. Strictly speaking it takes a little more space than that required for one full backup plus incrementals. A one byte change in a file - or even a change in metadata such as the owner - means that the entire file gets duplicated. This is fine for small files, or those which change seldom like applications or your /etc/passwd file. It is a problem for large files which constantly change such as your logs or your mailboxes.
and some minor ones:
  1. The rsnapshot server must be Unix-based and the filesystem you're backing up to must support hard links - so no Windows servers, and no FAT filesystems.
  2. It can only backup information that rsync knows about, so proprietary extensions like ACLs and extended attributes such as the immutable bit on ext2fs are not backed up.
  3. Windows ownership and permissions, being ACL-based and completely incompatible with Unix filesystems, are not handled well;
  4. We don't support backing up "Classic" Mac OS machines

Thankfully for most people none of these are particularly important. Restoring the boot record and OS before restoring your data is usually easy. Hard links are rarely used, being well under one in a thousand directory entries on a typical Linux machine. And on the majority of machines, logs and mboxes are but a small proportion of their data.

Design choices

The configuration file is plain text, with each line being a directive and a list of parameters. This is very easy to parse, reading a line at a time and using split() to extract the various bits. Using this simple format instead of something more complex like a Windows-style .INI file or XML or YAML removes external dependencies. Having to use additional non-core modules would reduce the potential audience significantly, as many users don't know how to get them or aren't allowed to install them. Rsnapshot is intended to be an application that is as easy to install as something like rsync, and users should not have to care that it uses perl instead of being written in the shell or C.

Something that I consider to be unfortunate is that the config file is whitespace-sensitive - tabs and spaces matter, just like in a Makefile. It's too late to change this though.

In another attempt to make it as easy as possible to install, we are not fussy about which version of perl the user has. We support 5.6.0 at least and aim to support earlier versions. This, of course, limits what bundled modules we can use. Thankfully, finding out which modules were bundled with which versions of perl is made easy by the Module::CoreList module.

Aside from perl itself (of which version 5 is installed by pretty much every Unix available these days) the only other thing we require is rsync, which must be installed on both the server and on all clients. Having GNU cp is nice, but we have implemented our own version of cp -al in perl in case the GNU version is not available. Another optional extra is ssh, so that you can use rsync over the network without exposing your plain-text data. But you can use rsh or an rsync server instead.

To avoid very lengthy backups being interfered with by a subsequent backup which starts before the previous one finishes, rsnapshot uses locking so that you can never have two concurrent backups. As a backup cycle may involve expiring and deleting an old backup - indeed, most backups will do - and that unlinking all the files in a backup can take a very long time, there is an option to postpone deletion until after the lock has been released. This "lazy delete" is a new feature which still needs more work. It's safe to use, but not optimal.


Aside from the usual small bugs that all software suffers from - and we generally get them fixed within a matter of days - the biggest problems have come from external programs and from people not understanding what rsnapshot does and how.

A particular recent external problem came from GNU cp. Recent versions changed how they handle trailing slashes on directory names, causing rsnapshot to break with a rather unhelpful error message. We fixed that in CVS and told people on the mailing list, but it took some time before a new release could be bundled and published, so we had to deal with the same problem being reported over and over again. I was tempted to deprecate using cp but the speed advantage precludes that. And while others have suggested using cpio -pldm instead, there are buggy implementations of cpio out there too!

People often wonder why they can't do their weekly backups until they've got a full set of dailies. This is documented, but obviously not documented well enough. While the documentation is complete and accurate, new features in particular have been documented by just tacking them on the end or adding in the middle, when sometimes the users would have been better served with a re-write. Both the man page and the HOWTO document are in dire need of a rewrite.

Error reporting has not been as clear as it could be. This has improved dramatically in recent months but still needs work.

The release cycle is slow. Features can be present and thoroughly tested in the CVS version for several months before getting packaged, and many users are understandably anxious about checking the software out of CVS and just using that.

The Community and how you can help

The rsnapshot-discuss mailing list is reasonably active, seeing messages on most days. Traffic is mostly people reporting problems (usually, as noted above, because they haven't understood the documentation) and being helped out by other list members. Discussion of new features, bug reports, patches, and release announcements make up the bulk of the remainder. I am very grateful that other users take the time to answer most questions, even the ones that come up over and over again.

I'm also lucky that the people submitting bug reports often take the time to dig into the code and try to figure out where the bug is and sometimes even include a patch. Even when they don't do that, the bug reports are usually accurate and concise.

A handful of people other than myself have commit access to CVS, and I'm liberal about handing out that permission - if someone has sent a good patch to the list, then I'll give them CVS commit rights if they want. One of the committers concentrates particularly on database support scripts.

What we really lack at the moment is someone with the time and inclination to go through the documentation and make it more useful to new users. But any other contributions of expertise, patches, or code review would be most welcome.


  2. Easy Automated Snapshot-Style Backups with Linux and Rsync; Rubel, Mike;
  3. Actually that's not true, it always makes a new copy and then moves it into place, as that means files are never in a half-changed state. But the effect is what I described. Rsync lets you override this with the --inplace option, but obviously you shouldn't do that in rsnapshot!
  4. This must be GNU cp, which supports the non-standard -l argument to create a link to a file instead of creating a new copy of a file. In tests this has been up to 50% faster than walking the directory tree and calling link() in perl.