Tag Archives: backups

Backing Up and Archiving to Removable Media: dar vs. git-annex

This is the fourth in a series about archiving to removable media (optical discs such as BD-Rs and DVD+Rs or portable hard drives). Here are the first three parts:

  • In part 1, I laid out my goals for the project, and considered a number of tools before determining dar and git-annex were my leading options.
  • In part 2, I took a deep dive into git-annex and simulated using it for this project.
  • In part 3, I did the same with dar.
  • And in this part, I want to put it together to come up with an initial direction to pursue.

I want to state at the outset that this is not a general review of dar or git-annex. This is an analysis of how those tools stack up to a particular use case. Neither tool focuses on this use case, and I note it is particularly far from the more common uses of git-annex. For instance, both tools offer support for cloud storage providers and special support for ssh targets, but neither of those are in-scope for this post.

Comparison Matrix

As part of this project, I made a comparison matrix which includes not just dar and git-annex, but also backuppc, bacula/bareos, and borg. This may give you some good context, and also some reference for other projects in this general space.

Reviewing the Goals

I identified some goals in part 1. They are all valid. As I have thought through the project more, I feel like I should condense them into a simpler ordered list, with the first being the most important. I omit some things here that both dar and git-annex can do (updates/incrementals, for instance; see the expanded goals list in part 1). Here they are:

  1. The tool must not modify the source data in any way.
  2. It must be simple to create or update an archive. Processes that require a lot of manual work, are flaky, or are difficult to do correctly, are unlikely to be done correctly and often. If it’s easy to do right, I’m more likely to do it. Put another way: an archive never created can never be restored.
  3. The chances of a successful restore by someone that is not me, that doesn’t know Linux, and is at least 10 years in the future, should be maximized. This implies a simple toolset, solid support for dealing with media errors or missing media, etc.
  4. Both a partial point-in-time restore and a full restore should be possible. The full restore must, at minimum, provide a consistent directory tree; that is, deletions, additions, and moves over time must be accurately reflected. Preserving modification times is a near-requirement, and preserving hard links, symbolic links, and other POSIX metadata is a significant nice-to-have.
  5. There must be a strategy to provide redundancy; for instance, a way for one set of archive discs to be offsite, another onsite, and the two to be periodically swapped.
  6. Use storage space efficiently.

Let’s take a look at how the two stack up against these goals.

Goal 1: Not modifying source data

With dar, this is accomplished. dar --create does not modify source data (and even has a mode to avoid updating atime) so that’s done.

git-annex normally does modify source data, in that it typically replaces files with symlinks into its hash-indexed storage directory. It can instead use hardlinks. In either case, you will wind up with files that have identical content (but may have originally been separate, non-linked files) linked together with git-annex. This would cause me trouble, as well as run the risk of modifying timestamps. So instead of just storing my data under a git-annex repo as is its most common case, I use the directory special remote with importtree=yes to sort of “import” the data in. This, plus my desire to have the repos sensible and usable on non-POSIX operating systems, accounts for a chunk of the git-annex complexity you see here. You wouldn’t normally see as much complexity with git-annex (though, as you will see, even without the directory special remote, dar still has less complexity).

Winner: dar, though I demonstrated a working approach with git-annex as well.

Goal 2: Simplicity of creating or updating an archive

Let us simply start by recognizing this:

  • Number of commands to create a first dar archive, including all splits: 1
  • Number of commands to create a first git-annex archive, with just the first two splits: 58
  • Number of commands to create a dar incremental: 1
  • Number of commands to update the last git-annex drive: 10
  • Number of commands to do a full restore of all slices and both archives with dar: 2 (1 if dar_manager used)
  • Number of commands to do a full restore of just the first two drive with git-annex: 9 (but my process may not be correct)

Both tools have a lot of power, but I must say, it is easier to wrap my head around what dar is doing than what git-annex is doing. Everything dar does is with files: here are the files to archive, here is an archive file, here is a detached (isolated) catalog. It is very straightforward. It took me far less time to develop my dar page than my git-annex page, despite having existing familiarity with both tools. As I pointed out in part 2, I still don’t fully understand how git-annex syncs metadata. Unsolved mysteries from that post include why the two git-annex drives had no idea what was on the other drives, and why the export operation silenty did nothing. Additionally, for the optical disc case, I had to create a restricted-size filesystem/dataset for git-annex to write into in order to get the desired size limit.

Looking at the optical disc case, dar has a lot of nice infrastructure built in. With –pause and –execute, it can very easily be combined with disc burning operations. –slice will automatically limit the size of a given slice, regardless of how much disk space is free, meaning that the git-annex tricks of creating smaller filesystems/datasets are unnecessary with dar.

To create an initial full backup with dar, you just give it the size of the device, and it will automatically split up the archive, with hooks to integrate for burning or changing drives. About as easy as you could get.

With git-annex, you would run the commands to have it fill up the initial filesystem, then burn the disc (or remove the drive), then run the commands to create another repo on the second filesystem, and so forth.

With hard drives, with git-annex you would do something similar; let it fill up a repo on a drive, and if it exits with a space error, swap in the next. With dar, you would slice as with an optical disk. Dar’s slicing is less convenient in this case, though, as it assumes every drive is the same size — and yours may not be. You could work around that by using a slice size no bigger than the smallest drive, and putting multiple slices on larger drives if need be. If a single drive is large enough to hold your entire data set, though, you need not worry about this with either tool.

Here’s a warning about git-annex: it won’t store anything beneath directories named .git. My use case doesn’t have many of those. If your use case does, you’re going to have to figure out what to do about it. Maybe rename them to something else while the backup runs? In any case, it is simply a fact that git-annex cannot back up git repositories, and this cuts against being able to back up things correctly.

Another point is that git-annex has scalability concerns. If your archive set gets into the hundreds of thousands of files, you may need to split it into multiple distinct git-annex repositories. If this occurs — and it will in my case — it may serve to dull the shine of some of git-annex’s features such as location tracking.

A detour down the update strategies path

Update strategies get a little more complicated with both. First, let’s consider: what exactly should our update strategy be?

For optical discs, I might consider doing a monthly update. I could burn a disc (or more than one, if needed) regardless of how much data is going to go onto it, because I want no more than a month’s data lost in any case. An alternative might be to spool up data until I have a disc’s worth, and then write that, but that could possibly mean months between actually burning a disc. Probably not good.

For removable drives, we’re unlikely to use a new drive each month. So there it makes sense to continue writing to the drive until it’s full. Now we have a choice: do we write and preserve each month’s updates, or do we eliminate intermediate changes and just keep the most recent data?

With both tools, the monthly burn of an optical disc turns out to be very similar to the initial full backup to optical disc. The considerations for spanning multiple discs are the same. With both tools, we would presumably want to keep some metadata on the host so that we don’t have to refer to a previous disc to know what was burned. In the dar case, that would be an isolated catalog. For git-annex, it would be a metadata-only repo. I illustrated both of these in parts 2 and 3.

Now, for hard drives. Assuming we want to continue preserving each month’s updates, with dar, we could just write an incremental to the drive each month. Assuming that the size of the incremental is likely far smaller than the size of the drive, you could easily enough do this. More fancily, you could look at the free space on the drive and tell dar to use that as the size of the first slice. For git-annex, you simply avoid calling drop/dropunused. This will cause the old versions of files to accumulate in .git/annex. You can get at them with git annex commands. This may imply some degree of elevated risk, as you are modifying metadata in the repo each month, which with dar you could chmod a-w or even chattr +i the archive files once written. Hopefully this elevated risk is low.

If you don’t want to preserve each month’s updates, with dar, you could just write an incremental each month that is based on the previous drive’s last backup, overwriting the previous. That implies some risk of drive failure during the time the overwrite is happening. Alternatively, you could write an incremental and then use dar to merge it into the previous incremental, creating a new one. This implies some degree of extra space needed (maybe on a different filesystem) while doing this. With git-annex, you would use drop/dropunused as I demonstrated in part 2.

The winner for goal 2 is dar. The gap is biggest with optical discs and more narrow with hard drives, thanks to git-annex’s different options for updates. Still, I would be more confident I got it right with dar.

Goal 3: Greatest chance of successful restore in the distant future

If you use git-annex like I suggested in part 2, you will have a set of discs or drives that contain a folder structure with plain files in them. These files can be opened without any additional tools at all. For sheer ability to get at raw data, git-annex has the edge.

When you talk about getting a consistent full restore — without multiple copies of renamed files or deleted files coming back — then you are going to need to use git-annex to do that.

Both git-annex and dar provide binaries. Dar provides a win64 version on its Sourceforge page. On the author’s releases site, you can find the win64 version in addition to a statically-linked x86_64 version for Linux. The git-annex install page mostly directs you to package managers for your distribution, but the downloads page also lists builds for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. The Linux version is dynamic, but ships most of its .so files alongside. The Windows version requires cygwin.dll, and all versions require you to also install git itself. Both tools are in package managers for Mac OS X, Debian, FreeBSD, and so forth. Let’s just say that you are likely to be able to run either one on a future Windows or Linux system.

There are also GUI frontends for dar, such as DARGUI and gdar. This can increase the chances of a future person being able to use the software easily. git-annex has the assistant, which is based on a different use case and probably not directly helpful here.

When it comes to doing the actual restore process using software, dar provides the easier process here.

For dealing with media errors and the like, dar can integrate with par2. While technically you could use par2 against the files git-annex writes, that’s more cumbersome to manage to the point that it is likely not to be done. Both tools can deal reasonably with missing media entirely.

I’m going to give the edge on this one to git-annex; while dar does provide the easier restore and superior tools for recovering from media errors, the ability to access raw data as plain files without any tools at all is quite compelling. I believe it is the most critical advantage git-annex has, and it’s a big one.

Goal 4: Support high-fidelity partial and full restores

Both tools make it possible to do a full restore reflecting deletions, additions, and so forth. Dar, as noted, is easier for this, but it is possible with git-annex. So, both can achieve a consistent restore.

Part of this goal deals with fidelity of the restore: preserving timestamps, hard and symbolic links, ownership, permissions, etc. Of these, timestamps are the most important for me.

git-annex can’t do any of that. dar does all of it.

Some of this can be worked around using mtree as I documented in part 2. However, that implies a need to also provide mtree on the discs for future users, and I’m not sure mtree really exists for Windows. It also cuts against the argument that git-annex discs can be used without any tools. It is true, they can, but all you will get is filename and content; no accurate date. Timestamps are often highly relevant for everything from photos to finding an elusive document or record.

Winner: dar.

Goal 5: Supporting backup strategies with redundancy

My main goal here is to have two separate backup sets: one that is offsite, and one that is onsite. Depending on the strategy and media, they might just always stay that way, or periodically rotate. For instance, with optical discs, you might just burn two copies of every disc and store one at each place. For hard drives, since you will be updating the content of them, you might swap them periodically.

This is possible with both tools. With both tools, if using the optical disc scheme I laid out, you can just burn two identical copies of each disc.

With the hard drive case, with dar, you can keep two directories of isolated catalogs, one for each drive set. A little identifier file on each drive will let you know which set to use.

git-annex can track locations itself. As I demonstrated in part 2, you can make each drive its own repo, add all drives from a given drive set to a git-annex group. When initializing a drive, you tell git-annex what group it’s a prt of. From then on, git-annex knows what content is in each group and will add whatever a given drive’s group needs to that drive.

It’s possible to do this with both, but the winner here is git-annex.

Goal 6: Efficient use of storage

Here are situations in which one or the other will be more efficient:

  • Lots of small files: dar, due to reduced filesystem overhead
  • Compressible data: dar (git-annex doesn’t support compression)
  • Renamed files: git-annex (it will detect the sha256 match and avoid storing a duplicate copy)
  • Identical files: git-annex, unless they are hardlinked already (again, detects the sha256 match)
  • Small modifications to files (eg, ID3 tags on MP3s, EXIF data on photos, etc): dar (it supports rsync-style binary deltas)

The winner depends on your particular situation.

Other notes

While not part of the goals above, dar is capable of using tapes directly. While not as common, they are often used in communities of people that archive lots of data.

Conclusions

Overall, dar is the winner for me. It is simpler in most areas, easier to get correct, and scales very well.

git-annex does, however, have some quite compelling points. Being able to access files as plain files is huge, and its location tracking is nicer than dar’s, even when using dar_manager.

Both tools are excellent and I recommend them both – and for more than the particular scenario shown here. Both have fantastic and responsive authors.

Using dar for Data Archiving

This is the third post in a series about data archiving to removable media (optical discs and hard drives). In the first, I explained the difference between backing up and archiving, established goals for the project, and said I’d evaluate git-annex and dar. The second post evaluated git-annex, and now it’s time to look at dar. The series will conclude with a post comparing git-annex with dar.

What is dar?

I could open with the same thing I did with git-annex, just changing the name of the program: “[dar] is a fantastic and versatile program that does… well, it’s one of those things that can do so much that it’s a bit hard to describe.” It is, fundamentally, an archiver like tar or zip (makes one file representing a bunch of other files), but it goes far beyond that. dar’s homepage lays out a comprehensive list of features, which I will try to summarize here.

  • Dar itself is both a library (with C++ and Python bindings) for interacting with data, and a CLI tool (dar itself).
  • Alongside this, there is an ecosystem of tools around dar, including GUIs for multiple platforms, backup scripts, and FUSE implementations.
  • Dar is like tar in that it can read and write files sequentially if desired. Dar archives can be streamed, just like tar archives. But dar takes it further; if you have dar_slave on the remote end, random access is possible over ssh (dramatically speeding up certain operations).
  • Dar is like zip in that a dar archive contains a central directory (called a catalog) which permits random access to the contents of an archive. In other words, you don’t have to read an entire archive to extract just one file (assuming the archive is on disk or something that itself permits random access). Also, dar can compress each file individually, rather than the tar approach of compressing the archive as a whole. This increases archive performance (dar knows not to try to compress already-compressed data), boosts restore resilience (corruption of one part of an archive doesn’t invalidate the entire rest of it), and boosts restore performance (permitting random access).
  • Dar can split an archive into multiple pieces called slices, and it can even split member files among the slices. The catalog contains information allowing you to know which slice(s) a given file is saved in.
  • The catalog can also be saved off in a file of its own (dar calls this an “isolated catalog”). Isolated catalogs record just metadata about files archived.
  • dar_manager can assemble a database by reading archives or isolated catalogs, letting you know where files are stored and facilitating restores using the minimal number of discs.
  • Dar supports differential/incremental backups, which record changes since the last backup. These backups record not just additions, but also deletions. dar can optionally use rsync-style binary deltas to minimize the space needed to record changes. Dar does not suffer from GNU tar’s data loss bug with incrementals.
  • Dar can “slice and dice” archives like Perl does strings. The usage notes page shows how you can merge archives, create decremental archives (where the full backup always reflects the current state of the system, and incrementals go backwards in time instead of forwards), etc. You can change the compression algorithm on an existing archive, re-slice it, etc.
  • Dar is extremely careful about preserving all metadata: hard links, sparse files, symlinks, timestamps (including subsecond resolution), EAs, POSIX ACLs, resource forks on Mac, detecting files being modified while being read, etc. It makes a nice way to copy directories, sort of similar to rsync -avxHAXS.

So to tie this together for this project, I will set up a 400MB slice size (to mimic what I did with git-annex), and see how dar saves the data and restores it.

Isolated cataloges aren’t strictly necessary for this, but by using them (and/or dar_manager), we can build up a database of files and locations and thus directly compare dar to git-annex location tracking.

Walkthrough: Creating the first archive

As with the git-annex walkthrough, I’ll set some variables to make it easy to remember:

  • $SOURCEDIR is the directory being backed up
  • $DRIVE is the directory for backups to be stored in. Since dar can split by a specified size, I don’t need to make separate filesystems to simulate the separate drive experience as I did with git-annex.
  • $CATDIR will hold isolated catalogs
  • $DARDB points to the dar_manager database

OK, we can run the backup immediately. No special setup is needed. dar supports both short-form (single-character) parameters and long-form ones. Since the parameters probably aren’t familiar to everyone, I will use the long-form ones in these examples.

Here’s how we create our initial full backup. I’ll explain the parameters below:


$ dar \
--verbose \
--create $DRIVE/bak1 \
--on-fly-isolate $CATDIR/bak1 \
--slice 400M \
--min-digits 2 \
--pause \
--fs-root $SOURCEDIR

Let’s look at each of these parameters:

  • –verbose does what you expect
  • –create selects the operation mode (like tar -c) and gives the archive basename
  • –on-fly-isolate says to write an isolated catalog as well, right while making the archive. You can always create an isolated catalog later (which is fast, since it only needs to read the last bits of the last slice) but it’s more convenient to do it now, so we do. We give the base name for the isolated catalog also.
  • –slice 400M says to split the archive, and create slices 400MB each.
  • –min-digits 2 pertains to naming files. Without it, dar would create files named bak1.dar.1, bak1.dar.2, bak1.dar.10, etc. dar works fine with this, but it can be annoying in ls. This is just convenience for humans.
  • –pause tells dar to pause after writing each slice. This would let us swap drives, burn discs, etc. I do this for demonstration purposes only; it isn’t strictly necessary in this situation. For a more powerful option, dar also supports –execute, which can run commands after each slice.
  • –fs-root gives the path to actually back up.

This same command could have been written with short options as:


$ dar -v -c $DRIVE/bak1 -@ $CATDIR/bak1 -s 400M -9 2 -p -R $SOURCEDIR

What does it look like while running? Here’s an excerpt:


...
Adding file to archive: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/testdata/[redacted]
Finished writing to file 1, ready to continue ? [return = YES | Esc = NO]
...
Writing down archive contents...
Closing the escape layer...
Writing down the first archive terminator...
Writing down archive trailer...
Writing down the second archive terminator...
Closing archive low layer...
Archive is closed.

--------------------------------------------
581 inode(s) saved
including 0 hard link(s) treated
0 inode(s) changed at the moment of the backup and could not be saved properly
0 byte(s) have been wasted in the archive to resave changing files
0 inode(s) with only metadata changed
0 inode(s) not saved (no inode/file change)
0 inode(s) failed to be saved (filesystem error)
0 inode(s) ignored (excluded by filters)
0 inode(s) recorded as deleted from reference backup
--------------------------------------------
Total number of inode(s) considered: 581
--------------------------------------------
EA saved for 0 inode(s)
FSA saved for 581 inode(s)
--------------------------------------------
Making room in memory (releasing memory used by archive of reference)...
Now performing on-fly isolation...
...

That was easy! Let’s look at the contents of the backup directory:


$ ls -lh $DRIVE
total 3.7G
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:27 bak1.01.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:27 bak1.02.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:27 bak1.03.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:27 bak1.04.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:28 bak1.05.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:28 bak1.06.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:28 bak1.07.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:28 bak1.08.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 400M Jun 16 19:29 bak1.09.dar
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 156M Jun 16 19:33 bak1.10.dar

And the isolated catalog:


$ ls -lh $CATDIR
total 37K
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 35K Jun 16 19:33 bak1.1.dar

The isolated catalog is stored compressed automatically.

Well this was easy. With one command, we archived the entire data set, split into 400MB chunks, and wrote out the catalog data.

Walkthrough: Inspecting the saved archive

Can dar tell us which slice contains a given file? Sure:


$ dar --list $DRIVE/bak1 --list-format=slicing | less
Slice(s)|[Data ][D][ EA ][FSA][Compr][S]|Permission| Filemane
--------+--------------------------------+----------+-----------------------------
...
1 [Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- [redacted]
1-2 [Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- [redacted]
2 [Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- [redacted]
...

This illustrates the transition from slice 1 to slice 2. The first file was stored entirely in slice 1; the second stored partially in slice 1 and partially in slice 2, and third solely in slice 2. We can get other kinds of information as well.


$ dar --list $DRIVE/bak1 | less
[Data ][D][ EA ][FSA][Compr][S]| Permission | User | Group | Size | Date | filename
--------------------------------+------------+-------+-------+---------+-------------------------------+------------
[Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- jgoerzen jgoerzen 24 Mio Mon Mar 5 07:58:09 2018 [redacted]
[Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- jgoerzen jgoerzen 16 Mio Mon Mar 5 07:58:09 2018 [redacted]
[Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- jgoerzen jgoerzen 22 Mio Mon Mar 5 07:58:09 2018 [redacted]

These are the same files I was looking at before. Here we see they are 24MB, 16MB, and 22MB in size, and some additional metadata. Even more is available in the XML list format.

Walkthrough: updates

As with git-annex, I’ve made some changes in the source directory: moved a file, added another, and deleted one. Let’s create an incremental backup now:


$ dar \
--verbose \
--create $DRIVE/bak2 \
--on-fly-isolate $CATDIR/bak2 \
--ref $CATDIR/bak1 \
--slice 400M \
--min-digits 2 \
--pause \
--fs-root $SOURCEDIR

This command is very similar to the earlier one. Instead of writing an archive and catalog named bak1, we write one named bak2. What’s new here is --ref $CATDIR/bak1. That says, make an incremental based on an archive of reference. All that is needed from that archive of reference is the detached catalog. --ref $DRIVE/bak1 would have worked equally well here.

Here’s what I did to the $SOURCEDIR:

  • Renamed a file to file01-unchanged
  • Deleted a file
  • Copied /bin/cp to a file named cp

Let’s see if dar’s command output matches this:


...
Adding file to archive: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/testdata/file01-unchanged
Saving Filesystem Specific Attributes for /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/testdata/file01-unchanged
Adding file to archive: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/testdata/cp
Saving Filesystem Specific Attributes for /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/testdata/cp
Adding folder to archive: [redacted]
Saving Filesystem Specific Attributes for [redacted]
Adding reference to files that have been destroyed since reference backup...
...
--------------------------------------------
3 inode(s) saved
including 0 hard link(s) treated
0 inode(s) changed at the moment of the backup and could not be saved properly
0 byte(s) have been wasted in the archive to resave changing files
0 inode(s) with only metadata changed
578 inode(s) not saved (no inode/file change)
0 inode(s) failed to be saved (filesystem error)
0 inode(s) ignored (excluded by filters)
2 inode(s) recorded as deleted from reference backup
--------------------------------------------
Total number of inode(s) considered: 583
--------------------------------------------
EA saved for 0 inode(s)
FSA saved for 3 inode(s)
--------------------------------------------
...

Yes, it does. The rename is recorded as a deletion and an addition, since dar doesn’t directly track renames. So the rename plus the deletion account for the two deletions. The rename plus the addition of cp count as 2 of the 3 inodes saved; the third is the modified directory from which files were deleted and moved out.

Let’s see the files that were created:


$ ls -lh $DRIVE/bak2*
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 18M Jun 16 19:52 /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/drive/bak2.01.dar
$ ls -lh $CATDIR/bak2*
-rw-r--r-- 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 22K Jun 16 19:52 /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/cat/bak2.1.dar

What does –list look like now?


Slice(s)|[Data ][D][ EA ][FSA][Compr][S]|Permission| Filemane
--------+--------------------------------+----------+-----------------------------
[ ][ ] [---][-----][X] -rwxr--r-- [redacted]
1 [Saved][ ] [-L-][ 0%][X] -rwxr--r-- file01-unchanged
...
[--- REMOVED ENTRY ----][redacted]
[--- REMOVED ENTRY ----][redacted]

Here I show an example of:

  1. A file that was not changed from the initial backup. Its presence was simply noted, but because we’re doing an incremental, the data wasn’t saved.
  2. A file that is saved in this incremental, on slice 1.
  3. The two deleted files

Walkthrough: dar_manager

As we’ve seen above, the two archives (or their detached catalog) give us a complete picture of what files were present at the time of the creation of each archive, and what files were stored in a given archive. We can certainly continue working in that way. We can also use dar_manager to build a comprehensive database of these archives, to be able to find what media is necessary to restore each given file. Or, with dar_manager’s –when parameter, we can restore files as of a particular date.

Let’s try it out. First, we create our database:


$ dar_manager --create $DARDB
$ dar_manager --base $DARDB --add $DRIVE/bak1
Auto detecting min-digits to be 2
$ dar_manager --base $DARDB --add $DRIVE/bak2
Auto detecting min-digits to be 2

Here we created the database, and added our two catalogs to it. (Again, we could have as easily used $CATDIR/bak1; either the archive or its isolated catalog will work here.) It’s important to add the catalogs in order.

Let’s do some quick experimentation with dar_manager:


$ dar_manager -v --base $DARDB --list
Decompressing and loading database to memory...

dar path :
dar options :
database version : 6
compression used : gzip
compression level: 9

archive # | path | basename
------------+--------------+---------------
1 /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/drive bak1
2 /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/drive bak2

$ dar_manager --base $DARDB --stat
archive # | most recent/total data | most recent/total EA
--------------+-------------------------+-----------------------
1 580/581 0/0
2 3/3 0/0

The –list option shows the correlation between dar_manager archive number (1, 2) with filenames (bak1, bak2). It is coincidence here that 1/bak1 and 2/bak2 correlate; that’s not necessarily the case. Most dar_manager commands operate on archive number, while dar commands operate on archive path/basename.

Now let’s see just what files are saved in archive , the incremental:


$ dar_manager --base $DARDB --used 2
[ Saved ][ ] [redacted]
[ Saved ][ ] file01-unchanged
[ Saved ][ ] cp

Now we can also where a file is stored. Here’s one that was saved in the full backup and unmodified in the incremental:


$ dar_manager --base $DARDB --file [redacted]
1 Fri Jun 16 19:15:12 2023 saved absent
2 Fri Jun 16 19:15:12 2023 present absent

(The absent at the end refers to extended attributes that the file didn’t have)

Similarly, for files that were added or removed, they’ll be listed only at the appropriate place.

Walkthrough: Restoration

I’m not going to repeat the author’s full restoration with dar page, but here are some quick examples.

A simple way of doing everything is using incrementals for the whole series. To do that, you’d have bak1 be full, bak2 based on bak1, bak3 based on bak2, bak4 based on bak3, etc. To restore from such a series, you have two options:

  • Use dar to simply extract each archive in order. It will handle deletions, renames, etc. along the way.
  • Use dar_manager with the backup database to do manage the process. It may be somewhat more efficient, as it won’t bother to restore files that will later be modified or deleted.

If you get fancy — for instance, bak2 is based on bak1, bak3 on bak2, bak4 on bak1 — then you would want to use dar_manager to ensure a consistent restore is completed. Either way, the process is nearly identical. Also, I figure, to make things easy, you can save a copy of the entire set of isolated catalogs before you finalize each disc/drive. They’re so small, and this would let someone with just the most recent disc build a dar_manager database without having to go through all the other discs.

Anyhow, let’s do a restore using just dar. I’ll make a $RESTOREDIR and do it that way.


$ dar \
--verbose \
--extract $DRIVE/bak1 \
--fs-root $RESTOREDIR \
--no-warn \
--execute "echo Ready for slice %n. Press Enter; read foo"

This –execute lets us see how dar works; this is an illustration of the power it has (above –pause); it’s a snippet interpreted by /bin/sh with %n being one of the dar placeholders. If memory serves, it’s not strictly necessary, as dar will prompt you for slices it needs if they’re not mounted. Anyhow, you’ll see it first reading the last slice, which contains the catalog, then reading from the beginning.

Here we go:


Auto detecting min-digits to be 2
Opening archive bak1 ...
Opening the archive using the multi-slice abstraction layer...
Ready for slice 10. Press Enter
...
Loading catalogue into memory...
Locating archive contents...
Reading archive contents...
File ownership will not be restored du to the lack of privilege, you can disable this message by asking not to restore file ownership [return = YES | Esc = NO]
Continuing...
Restoring file's data: [redacted]
Restoring file's FSA: [redacted]
Ready for slice 1. Press Enter
...
Ready for slice 2. Press Enter
...
--------------------------------------------
581 inode(s) restored
including 0 hard link(s)
0 inode(s) not restored (not saved in archive)
0 inode(s) not restored (overwriting policy decision)
0 inode(s) ignored (excluded by filters)
0 inode(s) failed to restore (filesystem error)
0 inode(s) deleted
--------------------------------------------
Total number of inode(s) considered: 581
--------------------------------------------
EA restored for 0 inode(s)
FSA restored for 0 inode(s)
--------------------------------------------

The warning is because I’m not doing the extraction as root, which limits dar’s ability to fully restore ownership data.

OK, now the incremental:


$ dar \
--verbose \
--extract $DRIVE/bak2 \
--fs-root $RESTOREDIR \
--no-warn \
--execute "echo Ready for slice %n. Press Enter; read foo"
...
Ready for slice 1. Press Enter
...
Restoring file's data: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/restore/file01-unchanged
Restoring file's FSA: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/restore/file01-unchanged
Restoring file's data: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/restore/cp
Restoring file's FSA: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/restore/cp
Restoring file's data: /acrypt/no-backup/jgoerzen/dar-testing/restore/[redacted directory]
Removing file (reason is file recorded as removed in archive): [redacted file]
Removing file (reason is file recorded as removed in archive): [redacted file]

This all looks right! Now how about we compare the restore to the original source directory?


$ diff -durN $SOURCEDIR $RESTOREDIR

No changes – perfect.

We could instead do this restore via a single dar_manager command, though annoyingly, we’d have to pass all top-level files/directories to dar_manager –restore. But still, it’s one command, and basically automates and optimizes the dar restores shown above.

Conclusions

Dar makes it extremely easy to just Do The Right Thing when making archives. One command makes a backup. It saves things in simple files. You can make an isolated catalog if you want, and it too is saved in a simple file. You can query what is in the files and where. You can restore from all or part of the files. You can simply play the backups forward, in order, to achieve a full and consistent restore. Or you can load data about them into dar_manager for an optimized restore.

A bit of scripting will be necessary to make incrementals; finding the most recent backup or catalog. If backup files are named with care — for instance, by date — then this should be a pretty easy task.

I haven’t touched on resiliency yet. dar comes with tools for recovering archives that have had portions corrupted or lost. It can also rebuild the catalog if it is corrupted or lost. It adds “tape marks” (or “escape sequences”) to the archive along with the data stream. So every entry in the catalog is actually stored in the archive twice: once alongside the file data, and once at the end in the collected catalog. This allows dar to scan a corrupted file for the tape marks and reconstruct whatever is still intact, even if the catalog is lost. dar also integrates with tools like sha256sum and par2 to simplify archive integrity testing and restoration.

This balances against the need to use a tool (dar, optionally with a GUI frontend) to restore files. I’ll discuss that more in the next post.

Using git-annex for Data Archiving

In my recent post about data archiving to removable media, I laid out the difference between backing up and archiving, and also said I’d evaluate git-annex and dar. This post evaluates git-annex. The next will look at dar, and then I’ll make a comparison post.

What is git-annex?

git-annex is a fantastic and versatile program that does… well, it’s one of those things that can do so much that it’s a bit hard to describe. Its homepage says:

git-annex allows managing large files with git, without storing the file contents in git. It can sync, backup, and archive your data, offline and online. Checksums and encryption keep your data safe and secure. Bring the power and distributed nature of git to bear on your large files with git-annex.

I think the particularly interesting features of git-annex aren’t actually included in that list. Among the features of git-annex that make it shine for this purpose, its location tracking is key. git-annex can know exactly which device has which file at which version at all times. Combined with its preferred content settings, this lets you very easily say things like:

  • “I want exactly 1 copy of every file to exist within the set of backup drives. Here’s a drive in that set; copy to it whatever needs to be copied to satisfy that requirement.”
  • “Now I have another set of backup drives. Periodically I will swap sets offsite. Copy whatever is needed to this drive in the second set, making sure that there is 1 copy of every file within this set as well, regardless of what’s in the first set.”
  • “Here’s a directory I want to use to track the status of everything else. I don’t want any copies at all here.”

git-annex can be set to allow a configurable amount of free space to remain on a device, and it will fill it up with whatever copies are necessary up until it hits that limit. Very convenient!

git-annex will store files in a folder structure that mirrors the origin folder structure, in plain files just as they were. This maximizes the ability for a future person to access the content, since it is all viewable without any special tool at all. Of course, for things like optical media, git-annex will essentially be creating what amounts to incrementals. To obtain a consistent copy of the original tree, you would still need to use git-annex to process (export) the archives.

git-annex challenges

In my prior post, I related some challenges with git-annex. The biggest of them – quite poor performance of the directory special remote when dealing with many files – has been resolved by Joey, git-annex’s author! That dramatically improves the git-annex use scenario here! The fixing commit is in the source tree but not yet in a release.

git-annex no doubt may still have performance challenges with repositories in the 100,000+-range, but in that order of magnitude it now looks usable. I’m not sure about 1,000,000-file repositories (I haven’t tested); there is a page about scalability.

A few other more minor challenges remain:

  • git-annex doesn’t really preserve POSIX attributes; for instance, permissions, symlink destinations, and timestamps are all not preserved. Of these, timestamps are the most important for my particular use case.
  • If your data set to archive contains Git repositories itself, these will not be included.

I worked around the timestamp issue by using the mtree-netbsd package in Debian. mtree writes out a summary of files and metadata in a tree, and can restore them. To save:

mtree -c -R nlink,uid,gid,mode -p /PATH/TO/REPO -X <(echo './.git') > /tmp/spec

And, after restoration, the timestamps can be applied with:

mtree -t -U -e < /tmp/spec

Walkthrough: initial setup

To use git-annex in this way, we have to do some setup. My general approach is this:

  • There is a source of data that lives outside git-annex. I'll call this $SOURCEDIR.
  • I'm going to name the directories holding my data $REPONAME.
  • There will be a "coordination" git-annex repo. It will hold metadata only, and no data. This will let us track where things live. I'll call it $METAREPO.
  • There will be drives. For this example, I'll call their mountpoints $DRIVE01 and $DRIVE02. For easy demonstration purposes, I used a ZFS dataset with a refquota set (to observe the size handling), but I could have as easily used a LVM volume, btrfs dataset, loopback filesystem, or USB drive. For optical discs, this would be a staging area or a UDF filesystem.

Let's get started! I've set all these shell variables appropriately for this example, and REPONAME to "testdata". We'll begin by setting up the metadata-only tracking repo.


$ REPONAME=testdata
$ mkdir "$METAREPO"
$ cd "$METAREPO"
$ git init
$ git config annex.thin true

There is a sort of complicated topic of how git-annex stores files in a repo, which varies depending on whether the data for the file is present in a given repo, and whether the file is locked or unlocked. Basically, the options I use here cause git-annex to mostly use hard links instead of symlinks or pointer files, for maximum compatibility with non-POSIX filesystems such as NTFS and UDF, which might be used on these devices. thin is part of that.

Let's continue:


$ git annex init 'local hub'
init local hub ok
(recording state in git...)
$ git annex wanted . "include=* and exclude=$REPONAME/*"
wanted . ok
(recording state in git...)

In a bit, we are going to import the source data under the directory named $REPONAME (here, testdata). The wanted command says: in this repository (represented by the bare dot), the files we want are matched by the rule that says eveyrthing except what's under $REPONAME. In other words, we don't want to make an unnecessary copy here.

Because I expect to use an mtree file as documented above, and it is not under $REPONAME/, it will be included. Let's just add it and tweak some things.


$ touch mtree
$ git annex add mtree
add mtree
ok
(recording state in git...)
$ git annex sync
git-annex sync will change default behavior to operate on --content in a future version of git-annex. Recommend you explicitly use --no-content (or -g) to prepare for that change. (Or you can configure annex.synccontent)
commit
[main (root-commit) 6044742] git-annex in local hub
1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)
create mode 120000 mtree
ok
$ ls -l
total 9
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jgoerzen jgoerzen 178 Jun 15 22:31 mtree -> .git/annex/objects/pX/ZJ/...

OK! We've added a file, and it got transformed into a symlink. That's the thing I said we were going to avoid, so:


git annex adjust --unlock-present
adjust
Switched to branch 'adjusted/main(unlockpresent)'
ok
$ ls -l
total 1
-rw-r--r-- 2 jgoerzen jgoerzen 0 Jun 15 22:31 mtree

You'll notice it transformed into a hard link (nlinks=2) file. Great! Now let's import the source data. For that, we'll use the directory special remote.


$ git annex initremote source type=directory directory=$SOURCEDIR importtree=yes \
encryption=none
initremote source ok
(recording state in git...)
$ git annex enableremote source directory=$SOURCEDIR
enableremote source ok
(recording state in git...)
$ git config remote.source.annex-readonly true
$ git config annex.securehashesonly true
$ git config annex.genmetadata true
$ git config annex.diskreserve 100M
$ git config remote.source.annex-tracking-branch main:$REPONAME

OK, so here we created a new remote named "source". We enabled it, and set some configuration. Most notably, that last line causes files from "source" to be imported under $REPONAME/ as we wanted earlier. Now we're ready to scan the source.


$ git annex sync

At this point, you'll see git-annex computing a hash for every file in the source directory.

I can verify with du that my metadata-only repo only uses 14MB of disk space, while my source is around 4GB.

Now we can see what git-annex thinks about file locations:


$ git-annex whereis | less
whereis mtree (1 copy)
8aed01c5-da30-46c0-8357-1e8a94f67ed6 -- local hub [here]
ok
whereis testdata/[redacted] (0 copies)
The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
failed
... many more lines ...

So remember we said we wanted mtree, but nothing under testdata, under this repo? That's exactly what we got. git-annex knows that the files under testdata can be found under the "source" special remote, but aren't in any git-annex repo -- yet. Now we'll start adding them.

Walkthrough: removable drives

I've set up two 500MB filesystems to represent removable drives. We'll see how git-annex works with them.


$ cd $DRIVE01
$ df -h .
Filesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on
acrypt/no-backup/annexdrive01 500M 1.0M 499M 1% /acrypt/no-backup/annexdrive01
$ git clone $METAREPO
Cloning into 'testdata'...
done.
$ cd $REPONAME
$ git config annex.thin true
$ git annex init "test drive #1"
$ git annex adjust --hide-missing --unlock
adjust
Switched to branch 'adjusted/main(hidemissing-unlocked)'
ok
$ git annex sync

OK, that's the initial setup. Now let's enable the source remote and configure it the same way we did before:


$ git annex enableremote source directory=$SOURCEDIR
enableremote source ok
(recording state in git...)
$ git config remote.source.annex-readonly true
$ git config remote.source.annex-tracking-branch main:$REPONAME
$ git config annex.securehashesonly true
$ git config annex.genmetadata true
$ git config annex.diskreserve 100M

Now, we'll add the drive to a group called "driveset01" and configure what we want on it:


$ git annex group . driveset01
$ git annex wanted . '(not copies=driveset01:1)'

What this does is say: first of all, this drive is in a group named driveset01. Then, this drive wants any files for which there isn't already at least one copy in driveset01.

Now let's load up some files!


$ git annex sync --content

As the messages fly by from here, you'll see it mentioning that it got mtree, and then various files from "source" -- until, that is, the filesystem had less than 100MB free, at which point it complained of no space for the rest. Exactly like we wanted!

Now, we need to teach $METAREPO about $DRIVE01.


$ cd $METAREPO
$ git remote add drive01 $DRIVE01/$REPONAME
$ git annex sync drive01
git-annex sync will change default behavior to operate on --content in a future version of git-annex. Recommend you explicitly use --no-content (or -g) to prepare for that change. (Or you can configure annex.synccontent)
commit
On branch adjusted/main(unlockpresent)
nothing to commit, working tree clean
ok
merge synced/main (Merging into main...)
Updating d1d9e53..817befc
Fast-forward
(Merging into adjusted branch...)
Updating 7ccc20b..861aa60
Fast-forward
ok
pull drive01
remote: Enumerating objects: 214, done.
remote: Counting objects: 100% (214/214), done.
remote: Compressing objects: 100% (95/95), done.
remote: Total 110 (delta 6), reused 0 (delta 0), pack-reused 0
Receiving objects: 100% (110/110), 13.01 KiB | 1.44 MiB/s, done.
Resolving deltas: 100% (6/6), completed with 6 local objects.
From /acrypt/no-backup/annexdrive01/testdata
* [new branch] adjusted/main(hidemissing-unlocked) -> drive01/adjusted/main(hidemissing-unlocked)
* [new branch] adjusted/main(unlockpresent) -> drive01/adjusted/main(unlockpresent)
* [new branch] git-annex -> drive01/git-annex
* [new branch] main -> drive01/main
* [new branch] synced/main -> drive01/synced/main
ok

OK! This step is important, because drive01 and drive02 (which we'll set up shortly) won't necessarily be able to reach each other directly, due to not being plugged in simultaneously. Our $METAREPO, however, will know all about where every file is, so that the "wanted" settings can be correctly resolved. Let's see what things look like now:


$ git annex whereis | less
whereis mtree (2 copies)
8aed01c5-da30-46c0-8357-1e8a94f67ed6 -- local hub [here]
b46fc85c-c68e-4093-a66e-19dc99a7d5e7 -- test drive #1 [drive01]
ok
whereis testdata/[redacted] (1 copy)
b46fc85c-c68e-4093-a66e-19dc99a7d5e7 -- test drive #1 [drive01]

The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
ok

If I scroll down a bit, I'll see the files past the 400MB mark that didn't make it onto drive01. Let's add another example drive!

Walkthrough: Adding a second drive

The steps for $DRIVE02 are the same as we did before, just with drive02 instead of drive01, so I'll omit listing it all a second time. Now look at this excerpt from whereis:


whereis testdata/[redacted] (1 copy)
b46fc85c-c68e-4093-a66e-19dc99a7d5e7 -- test drive #1 [drive01]

The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
ok
whereis testdata/[redacted] (1 copy)
c4540343-e3b5-4148-af46-3f612adda506 -- test drive #2 [drive02]

The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
ok

Look at that! Some files on drive01, some on drive02, some neither place. Perfect!

Walkthrough: Updates

So I've made some changes in the source directory: moved a file, added another, and deleted one. All of these were copied to drive01 above. How do we handle this?

First, we update the metadata repo:


$ cd $METAREPO
$ git annex sync
$ git annex dropunused all

OK, this has scanned $SOURCEDIR and noted changes. Let's see what whereis says:


$ git annex whereis | less
...
whereis testdata/cp (0 copies)
The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
failed
whereis testdata/file01-unchanged (1 copy)
b46fc85c-c68e-4093-a66e-19dc99a7d5e7 -- test drive #1 [drive01]

The following untrusted locations may also have copies:
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- [source]
ok

So this looks right. The file I added was a copy of /bin/cp. I moved another file to one named file01-unchanged. Notice that it realized this was a rename and that the data still exists on drive01.

Well, let's update drive01.


$ cd $DRIVE01/$REPONAME
$ git annex sync --content

Looking at the testdata/ directory now, I see that file01-unchanged has been renamed, the deleted file is gone, but cp isn't yet here -- probably due to space issues; as it's new, it's undefined whether it or some other file would fill up free space. Let's work along a few more commands.


$ git annex get --auto
$ git annex drop --auto
$ git annex dropunused all

And now, let's make sure metarepo is updated with its state.


$ cd $METAREPO
$ git annex sync

We could do the same for drive02. This is how we would proceed with every update.

Walkthrough: Restoration

Now, we have bare files at reasonable locations in drive01 and drive02. But, to generate a consistent restore, we need to be able to actually do an export. Otherwise, we may have files with old names, duplicate files, etc. Let's assume that we lost our source and metadata repos and have to restore from scratch. We'll make a new $RESTOREDIR. We'll begin with drive01 since we used it most recently.


$ mv $METAREPO $METAREPO.disabled
$ mv $SOURCEDIR $SOURCEDIR.disabled
$ git clone $DRIVE01/$REPONAME $RESTOREDIR
$ cd $RESTOREDIR
$ git config annex.thin true
$ git annex init "restore"
$ git annex adjust --hide-missing --unlock

Now, we need to connect the drive01 and pull the files from it.


$ git remote add drive01 $DRIVE01/$REPONAME
$ git annex sync --content

Now, repeat with drive02:


$ git remote add drive02 $DRIVE02/$REPONAME
$ git annex sync --content

Now we've got all our content back! Here's what whereis looks like:


whereis testdata/file01-unchanged (3 copies)
3d663d0f-1a69-4943-8eb1-f4fe22dc4349 -- restore [here]
9e48387e-b096-400a-8555-a3caf5b70a64 -- source
b46fc85c-c68e-4093-a66e-19dc99a7d5e7 -- test drive #1 [origin]
ok
...

I was a little surprised that drive01 didn't seem to know what was on drive02. Perhaps that could have been remedied by adding more remotes there? I'm not entirely sure; I'd thought would have been able to do that automatically.

Conclusions

I think I have demonstrated two things:

First, git-annex is indeed an extremely powerful tool. I have only scratched the surface here. The location tracking is a neat feature, and being able to just access the data as plain files if all else fails is nice for future users.

Secondly, it is also a complex tool and difficult to get right for this purpose (I think much easier for some other purposes). For someone that doesn't live and breathe git-annex, it can be hard to get right. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I got it right here. Why didn't drive02 know what files were on drive01 and vice-versa? I don't know, and that reflects some kind of misunderstanding on my part about how metadata is synced; perhaps more care needs to be taken in restore, or done in a different order, than I proposed. I initially tried to do a restore by using git annex export to a directory special remote with exporttree=yes, but I couldn't ever get it to actually do anything, and I don't know why.

These two cut against each other. On the one hand, the raw accessibility of the data to someone with no computer skills is unmatched. On the other hand, I'm not certain I have the skill to always prepare the discs properly, or to do a proper consistent restore.

Recommendations for Tools for Backing Up and Archiving to Removable Media

I have several TB worth of family photos, videos, and other data. This needs to be backed up — and archived.

Backups and archives are often thought of as similar. And indeed, they may be done with the same tools at the same time. But the goals differ somewhat:

Backups are designed to recover from a disaster that you can fairly rapidly detect.

Archives are designed to survive for many years, protecting against disaster not only impacting the original equipment but also the original person that created them.

Reflecting on this, it implies that while a nice ZFS snapshot-based scheme that supports twice-hourly backups may be fantastic for that purpose, if you think about things like family members being able to access it if you are incapacitated, or accessibility in a few decades’ time, it becomes much less appealing for archives. ZFS doesn’t have the wide software support that NTFS, FAT, UDF, ISO-9660, etc. do.

This post isn’t about the pros and cons of the different storage media, nor is it about the pros and cons of cloud storage for archiving; these conversations can readily be found elsewhere. Let’s assume, for the point of conversation, that we are considering BD-R optical discs as well as external HDDs, both of which are too small to hold the entire backup set.

What would you use for archiving in these circumstances?

Establishing goals

The goals I have are:

  • Archives can be restored using Linux or Windows (even though I don’t use Windows, this requirement will ensure the broadest compatibility in the future)
  • The archival system must be able to accommodate periodic updates consisting of new files, deleted files, moved files, and modified files, without requiring a rewrite of the entire archive dataset
  • Archives can ideally be mounted on any common OS and the component files directly copied off
  • Redundancy must be possible. In the worst case, one could manually copy one drive/disc to another. Ideally, the archiving system would automatically track making n copies of data.
  • While a full restore may be a goal, simply finding one file or one directory may also be a goal. Ideally, an archiving system would be able to quickly tell me which discs/drives contain a given file.
  • Ideally, preserves as much POSIX metadata as possible (hard links, symlinks, modification date, permissions, etc). However, for the archiving case, this is less important than for the backup case, with the possible exception of modification date.
  • Must be easy enough to do, and sufficiently automatable, to allow frequent updates without error-prone or time-consuming manual hassle

I would welcome your ideas for what to use. Below, I’ll highlight different approaches I’ve looked into and how they stack up.

Basic copies of directories

The initial approach might be one of simply copying directories across. This would work well if the data set to be archived is smaller than the archival media. In that case, you could just burn or rsync a new copy with every update and be done. Unfortunately, this is much less convenient with data of the size I’m dealing with. rsync is unavailable in that case. With some datasets, you could manually design some rsyncs to store individual directories on individual devices, but that gets unwieldy fast and isn’t scalable.

You could use something like my datapacker program to split the data across multiple discs/drives efficiently. However, updates will be a problem; you’d have to re-burn the entire set to get a consistent copy, or rely on external tools like mtree to reflect deletions. Not very convenient in any case.

So I won’t be using this.

tar or zip

While you can split tar and zip files across multiple media, they have a lot of issues. GNU tar’s incremental mode is clunky and buggy; zip is even worse. tar files can’t be read randomly, making it extremely time-consuming to extract just certain files out of a tar file.

The only thing going for these formats (and especially zip) is the wide compatibility for restoration.

dar

Here we start to get into the more interesting tools. Dar is, in my opinion, one of the best Linux tools that few people know about. Since I first wrote about dar in 2008, it’s added some interesting new features; among them, binary deltas and cloud storage support. So, dar has quite a few interesting features that I make use of in other ways, and could also be quite helpful here:

  • Dar can both read and write files sequentially (streaming, like tar), or with random-access (quick seek to extract a subset without having to read the entire archive)
  • Dar can apply compression to individual files, rather than to the archive as a whole, faciliting both random access and resilience (corruption in one file doesn’t invalidate all subsequent files). Dar also supports numerous compression algorithms including gzip, bzip2, xz, lzo, etc., and can omit compressing already-compressed files.
  • The end of each dar file contains a central directory (dar calls this a catalog). The catalog contains everything necessary to extract individual files from the archive quickly, as well as everything necessary to make a future incremental archive based on this one. Additionally, dar can make and work with “isolated catalogs” — a file containing the catalog only, without data.
  • Dar can split the archive into multiple pieces called slices. This can best be done with fixed-size slices (–slice and –first-slice options), which let the catalog regord the slice number and preserves random access capabilities. With the –execute option, dar can easily wait for a given slice to be burned, etc.
  • Dar normally stores an entire new copy of a modified file, but can optionally store an rdiff binary delta instead. This has the potential to be far smaller (think of a case of modifying metadata for a photo, for instance).

Additionally, dar comes with a dar_manager program. dar_manager makes a database out of dar catalogs (or archives). This can then be used to identify the precise archive containing a particular version of a particular file.

All this combines to make a useful system for archiving. Isolated catalogs are tiny, and it would be easy enough to include the isolated catalogs for the entire set of archives that came before (or even the dar_manager database file) with each new incremental archive. This would make restoration of a particular subset easy.

The main thing to address with dar is that you do need dar to extract the archive. Every dar release comes with source code and a win64 build. dar also supports building a statically-linked Linux binary. It would therefore be easy to include win64 binary, Linux binary, and source with every archive run. dar is also a part of multiple Linux and BSD distributions, which are archived around the Internet. I think this provides a reasonable future-proofing to make sure dar archives will still be readable in the future.

The other challenge is user ability. While dar is highly portable, it is fundamentally a CLI tool and will require CLI abilities on the part of users. I suspect, though, that I could write up a few pages of instructions to include and make that a reasonably easy process. Not everyone can use a CLI, but I would expect a person that could follow those instructions could be readily-enough found.

One other benefit of dar is that it could easily be used with tapes. The LTO series is liked by various hobbyists, though it could pose formidable obstacles to non-hobbyists trying to aceess data in future decades. Additionally, since the archive is a big file, it lends itself to working with par2 to provide redundancy for certain amounts of data corruption.

git-annex

git-annex is an interesting program that is designed to facilitate managing large sets of data and moving it between repositories. git-annex has particular support for offline archive drives and tracks which drives contain which files.

The idea would be to store the data to be archived in a git-annex repository. Then git-annex commands could generate filesystem trees on the external drives (or trees to br burned to read-only media).

In a post about using git-annex for blu-ray backups, an earlier thread about DVD-Rs was mentioned.

This has a few interesting properties. For one, with due care, the files can be stored on archival media as regular files. There are some different options for how to generate the archives; some of them would place the entire git-annex metadata on each drive/disc. With that arrangement, one could access the individual files without git-annex. With git-annex, one could reconstruct the final (or any intermediate) state of the archive appropriately, handling deltions, renames, etc. You would also easily be able to know where copies of your files are.

The practice is somewhat more challenging. Hundreds of thousands of files — what I would consider a medium-sized archive — can pose some challenges, running into hours-long execution if used in conjunction with the directory special remote (but only minutes-long with a standard git-annex repo).

Ruling out the directory special remote, I had thought I could maybe just work with my files in git-annex directly. However, I ran into some challenges with that approach as well. I am uncomfortable with git-annex mucking about with hard links in my source data. While it does try to preserve timestamps in the source data, these are lost on the clones. I wrote up my best effort to work around all this.

In a forum post, the author of git-annex comments that “I don’t think that CDs/DVDs are a particularly good fit for git-annex, but it seems a couple of users have gotten something working.” The page he references is Managing a large number of files archived on many pieces of read-only medium. Some of that discussion is a bit dated (for instance, the directory special remote has the importtree feature that implements what was being asked for there), but has some interesting tips.

git-annex supplies win64 binaries, and git-annex is included with many distributions as well. So it should be nearly as accessible as dar in the future. Since git-annex would be required to restore a consistent recovery image, similar caveats as with dar apply; CLI experience would be needed, along with some written instructions.

Bacula and BareOS

Although primarily tape-based archivers, these do also also nominally support drives and optical media. However, they are much more tailored as backup tools, especially with the ability to pull from multiple machines. They require a database and extensive configuration, making them a poor fit for both the creation and future extractability of this project.

Conclusions

I’m going to spend some more time with dar and git-annex, testing them out, and hope to write some future posts about my experiences.

Fast, Ordered Unixy Queues over NNCP and Syncthing with Filespooler

It seems that lately I’ve written several shell implementations of a simple queue that enforces ordered execution of jobs that may arrive out of order. After writing this for the nth time in bash, I decided it was time to do it properly. But first, a word on the why of it all.

Why did I bother?

My needs arose primarily from handling Backups over Asynchronous Communication methods – in this case, NNCP. When backups contain incrementals that are unpacked on the destination, they must be applied in the correct order.

In some cases, like ZFS, the receiving side will detect an out-of-order backup file and exit with an error. In those cases, processing in random order is acceptable but can be slow if, say, hundreds or thousands of hourly backups have stacked up over a period of time. The same goes for using gitsync-nncp to synchronize git repositories. In both cases, a best effort based on creation date is sufficient to produce a significant performance improvement.

With other cases, such as tar or dar backups, the receiving cannot detect out of order incrementals. In those situations, the incrementals absolutely must be applied with strict ordering. There are many other situations that arise with these needs also. Filespooler is the answer to these.

Existing Work

Before writing my own program, I of course looked at what was out there already. I looked at celeary, gearman, nq, rq, cctools work queue, ts/tsp (task spooler), filequeue, dramatiq, GNU parallel, and so forth.

Unfortunately, none of these met my needs at all. They all tended to have properties like:

  • An extremely complicated client/server system that was incompatible with piping data over existing asynchronous tools
  • A large bias to processing of small web requests, resulting in terrible inefficiency or outright incompatibility with jobs in the TB range
  • An inability to enforce strict ordering of jobs, especially if they arrive in a different order from how they were queued

Many also lacked some nice-to-haves that I implemented for Filespooler:

  • Support for the encryption and cryptographic authentication of jobs, including metadata
  • First-class support for arbitrary compressors
  • Ability to use both stream transports (pipes) and filesystem-like transports (eg, rclone mount, S3, Syncthing, or Dropbox)

Introducing Filespooler

Filespooler is a tool in the Unix tradition: that is, do one thing well, and integrate nicely with other tools using the fundamental Unix building blocks of files and pipes. Filespooler itself doesn’t provide transport for jobs, but instead is designed to cooperate extremely easily with transports that can be written to as a filesystem or piped to – which is to say, almost anything of interest.

Filespooler is written in Rust and has an extensive Filespooler Reference as well as many tutorials on its homepage. To give you a few examples, here are some links:

Basics of How it Works

Filespooler is intentionally simple:

  • The sender maintains a sequence file that includes a number for the next job packet to be created.
  • The receiver also maintains a sequence file that includes a number for the next job to be processed.
  • fspl prepare creates a Filespooler job packet and emits it to stdout. It includes a small header (<100 bytes in most cases) that includes the sequence number, creation timestamp, and some other useful metadata.
  • You get to transport this job packet to the receiver in any of many simple ways, which may or may not involve Filespooler’s assistance.
  • On the receiver, Filespooler (when running in the default strict ordering mode) will simply look at the sequence file and process jobs in incremental order until it runs out of jobs to process.

The name of job files on-disk matches a pattern for identification, but the content of them is not significant; only the header matters.

You can send job data in three ways:

  1. By piping it to fspl prepare
  2. By setting certain environment variables when calling fspl prepare
  3. By passing additional command-line arguments to fspl prepare, which can optionally be passed to the processing command at the receiver.

Data piped in is added to the job “payload”, while environment variables and command-line parameters are encoded in the header.

Basic usage

Here I will excerpt part of the Using Filespooler over Syncthing tutorial; consult it for further detail. As a bit of background, Syncthing is a FLOSS decentralized directory synchronization tool akin to Dropbox (but with a much richer feature set in many ways).

Preparation

First, on the receiver, you create the queue (passing the directory name to -q):

sender$ fspl queue-init -q ~/sync/b64queue

Now, we can send a job like this:

sender$ echo Hi | fspl prepare -s ~/b64seq -i - | fspl queue-write -q ~/sync/b64queue

Let’s break that down:

  • First, we pipe “Hi” to fspl prepare.
  • fspl prepare takes two parameters:
    • -s seqfile gives the path to a sequence file used on the sender side. This file has a simple number in it that increments a unique counter for every generated job file. It is matched with the nextseq file within the queue to make sure that the receiver processes jobs in the correct order. It MUST be separate from the file that is in the queue and should NOT be placed within the queue. There is no need to sync this file, and it would be ideal to not sync it.
    • The -i option tells fspl prepare to read a file for the packet payload. -i - tells it to read stdin for this purpose. So, the payload will consist of three bytes: “Hi\n” (that is, including the terminating newline that echo wrote)
  • Now, fspl prepare writes the packet to its stdout. We pipe that into fspl queue-write:
    • fspl queue-write reads stdin and writes it to a file in the queue directory in a safe manner. The file will ultimately match the fspl-*.fspl pattern and have a random string in the middle.

At this point, wait a few seconds (or however long it takes) for the queue files to be synced over to the recipient.

On the receiver, we can see if any jobs have arrived yet:

receiver$ fspl queue-ls -q ~/sync/b64queue
ID                   creation timestamp          filename
1                    2022-05-16T20:29:32-05:00   fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl

Let’s say we’d like some information about the job. Try this:

receiver$ $ fspl queue-info -q ~/sync/b64queue -j 1
FSPL_SEQ=1
FSPL_CTIME_SECS=1652940172
FSPL_CTIME_NANOS=94106744
FSPL_CTIME_RFC3339_UTC=2022-05-17T01:29:32Z
FSPL_CTIME_RFC3339_LOCAL=2022-05-16T20:29:32-05:00
FSPL_JOB_FILENAME=fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl
FSPL_JOB_QUEUEDIR=/home/jgoerzen/sync/b64queue
FSPL_JOB_FULLPATH=/home/jgoerzen/sync/b64queue/jobs/fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl

This information is intentionally emitted in a format convenient for parsing.

Now let’s run the job!

receiver$ fspl queue-process -q ~/sync/b64queue --allow-job-params base64
SGkK

There are two new parameters here:

  • --allow-job-params says that the sender is trusted to supply additional parameters for the command we will be running.
  • base64 is the name of the command that we will run for every job. It will:
    • Have environment variables set as we just saw in queue-info
    • Have the text we previously prepared – “Hi\n” – piped to it

By default, fspl queue-process doesn’t do anything special with the output; see Handling Filespooler Command Output for details on other options. So, the base64-encoded version of our string is “SGkK”. We successfully sent a packet using Syncthing as a transport mechanism!

At this point, if you do a fspl queue-ls again, you’ll see the queue is empty. By default, fspl queue-process deletes jobs that have been successfully processed.

For more

See the Filespooler homepage.


This blog post is also available as a permanent, periodically-updated page.

A Simple, Delay-Tolerant, Offline-Capable Mesh Network with Syncthing (+ optional NNCP)

A little while back, I spent a week in a remote area. It had no Internet and no cell phone coverage. Sometimes, I would drive in to town where there was a signal to get messages, upload photos, and so forth. I had to take several devices with me: my phone, my wife’s, maybe a laptop or a tablet too. It seemed there should have been a better way. And there is.

I’ll use this example to talk about a mesh network, but it could just as well apply to people wanting to communicate on a 12-hour flight that has no in-flight wifi, or spacecraft with an intermittent connection, or a person traveling.

Syncthing makes a wonderful solution for things like these. Here are some interesting things about Syncthing:

  • You can think of Syncthing as a serverless, peer-to-peer, open source alternative to Dropbox. Machines sync directly with each other without a server, though you can add a server if you want.
  • It can operate completely without Internet access or any central server, though if Internet access is available, it can readily be used.
  • Syncthing devices connected to the same LAN or Wifi will detect each other’s presence and automatically communicate.
  • Syncthing is capable of handling a constantly-changing topology. It can also, for instance, handle two disconnected clusters of nodes with one node that “travels” between them — perhaps just a phone.
  • Syncthing scales from everything from a phone to thousands of nodes.
  • Syncthing normally performs syncs in every direction, but can also do single-direction syncs
  • An individual Syncthing node can register its interest or disinterest in certain files or directories based on filename patterns

Syncthing works by having you define devices and folders. You can choose which devices to share folders with. A shared folder has an ID that is unique across Sycnthing. You can share a folder from device A to device B, and then device B can share it with device C, even if A and C don’t know about each other or have no way to communicate. More commonly, though, all the devices would know about each other and will opportunistically communicate the best way they can.

Syncthing uses something akin to a Bittorrent protocol. Say you’re syncing videos from your phone, and they’re going to 3 machines. It doesn’t mean that Syncthing has to send it three times from the phone. Syncthing will send each block, most likely, just once; the other nodes in the swarm will register the block availability from the first other node to get it and will exchange blocks with themselves.

Syncthing will typically look for devices on the local LAN. Failing that, it will use an introduction server to see if it can reach them directly using P2P. Failing that, perhaps due to restrictive firewalls or NAT, communication can be relayed through volunteer-run Syncthing servers on the Internet. All Syncthing communications are cryptographically encrypted and verified. You can also configure Syncthing arbitrarily; for instance, to run over ssh or Tor tunnels.

So, let’s look at how Syncthing might help with the example I laid out up front.

All the devices at the remote location could communicate with each other. The Android app is quite capable of syncing photos and videos using Syncthing, for instance. Then one device could be taken to the Internet location and it would transmit data on behalf of all the others – perhaps back to a computer at your home, or to a server somewhere. Perhaps a script running on the remote server would then move files out of the syncthing synced folder into permanent storage elsewhere, triggering a deletion to be sent to the phone to free up storage. When the phone gets back to the other devices, the deletion can be propagated to them to free up storage there too.

Or maybe you have a computer out in a shed or somewhere without Internet access that you go to periodically, and need to get files to it. Again, your phone could be a carrier.

Taking it a step further

If you envision a file as a packet, you could, conceivably, do something like tunnel TCP/IP over Syncthing, assuming generous-enough timeouts. It can truly handle communication.

But you don’t need TCP/IP for this. Consider some other things you could do:

  • Drop a script in a special directory that gets picked up by a remote server and run
  • Drop emails in a special directory that get transmitted and then deleted by a remote system when they’re seen
  • Drop files (eg, photos or videos) in a directory that a remote system will copy or move out of there
  • Drop messages (perhaps gpg-encrypted) — which could be text files — for someone to see and process.
  • Drop NNTP bundles for group communication

You can start to see how there are a lot of possibilities here that extend beyond just file synchronization, though they are built upon a file synchronization tool.

Enter NNCP

Let’s look at a tool that’s especially suited for this: NNCP, which I’ve been writing about a lot lately.

NNCP is designed to handle file exchange and remote execution with remote computers in an asynchronous, store-and-forward manner. NNCP packets are themselves encrypted and authenticated. NNCP traditionally is source-routed (that is, you configure it so that machine A reaches machine D by relaying through B and C), and the packets are onion-routed. NNCP packets can be exchanged by a TCP call, a tar-like stream, copying files to something like a USB stick and physically transporting it to the remote, etc.

This works really well and I’ve been using it myself. But it gets complicated if the network topology isn’t fixed; it is difficult to reroute packets due to the onion routing, for instance. There are various workarounds that could be used — but why not just use Syncthing as a transport in those cases?

nncp-xfer is the command that exchanges packets by writing them to, and reading them from, a directory. It is what you’d use to exchange packets on a USB stick. And what you’d use to exchange packets via Syncthing. It writes packets in a RECIPIENT/SENDER/PACKET directory structure, so it is perfectly fine to have multiple systems exchanging packets in a single Syncthing synced folder tree. This structure also allows leaf nodes to only carry the particular packets they’re interested in. The packets are all encrypted, so they can be freely synced wherever.

Since Syncthing opportunistically syncs a shared folder with any device the folder is shared with, a phone could very easily be the NNCP transport, even if it has no idea what NNCP is. It could carry NNCP packets back and forth between sites, or to the Internet, or whatever.

NNCP supports file transmission, file request, and remote execution, all subject to controls, of course. It is easy to integrate with Exim or Postfix to use as a mail transport, Git transport, and so forth. I use it for backups. It would be quite easy to have it send those backups (encrypted zfs send) via nncp-xfer to Syncthing instead of the usual method, and then if I’ve shared the Syncthing folder with my phone, all I need to do is bring the phone into Internet range and they get sent. nncp-xfer will normally remove the packets out of the xfer directory as it ingests them, so the space will only be consumed on the phone (and laptop) until we know the packets made it to their destination.

Pretty slick, eh?

Remote Directory Tree Comparison, Optionally Asynchronous and Airgapped

Note: this is another article in my series on asynchronous communication in Linux with UUCP and NNCP.

In the previous installment on store-and-forward backups, I mentioned how easy it is to do with ZFS, and some of the tools that can be used to do it without ZFS. A lot of those tools are a bit less robust, so we need some sort of store-and-forward mechanism to verify backups. To be sure, verifying backups is good with ANY scheme, and this could be used with ZFS backups also.

So let’s say you have a shiny new backup scheme in place, and you’d like to verify that it’s working correctly. To do that, you need to compare the source directory tree on machine A with the backed-up directory tree on machine B.

Assuming a conventional setup, here are some ways you might consider to do that:

  • Just copy everything from machine A to machine B and compare locally
  • Or copy everything from machine A to a USB drive, plug that into machine B, and compare locally
  • Use rsync in dry-run mode and see if it complains about anything

The first two options are not particularly practical for large datasets, though I note that the second is compatible with airgapping. Using rsync requires both systems to be online at the same time to perform the comparison.

What would be really nice here is a tool that would write out lots of information about the files on a system: their names, sizes, last modified dates, maybe even sha256sum and other data. This file would be far smaller than the directory tree itself, would compress nicely, and could be easily shipped to an airgapped system via NNCP, UUCP, a USB drive, or something similar.

Tool choices

It turns out there are already quite a few tools in Debian (and other Free operating systems) to do this, and half of them are named mtree (though, of course, not all mtrees are compatible with each other.) We’ll look at some of the options here.

I’ve made a simple test directory for illustration purposes with these commands:

mkdir test
cd test
echo hi > hi
ln -s hi there
ln hi foo
touch empty
mkdir emptydir
mkdir somethingdir
cd somethingdir
ln -s ../there

I then also used touch to set all files to a consistent timestamp for illustration purposes.

Tool option: getfacl (Debian package: acl)

This comes with the acl package, but can be used with other than ACL purposes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a tool to directly compare its output with a filesystem (setfacl, for instance, can apply the permissions listed but won’t compare.) It ignores symlinks and doesn’t show sizes or dates, so is ineffective for our purposes.

Example output:

$ getfacl --numeric -R test
...
# file: test/hi
# owner: 1000
# group: 1000
user::rw-
group::r--
other::r--
...

Tool option: fmtree, the FreeBSD mtree (Debian package: freebsd-buildutils)

fmtree can prepare a “specification” based on a directory tree, and compare a directory tree to that specification. The comparison also is aware of files that exist in a directory tree but not in the specification. The specification format is a bit on the odd side, but works well enough with fmtree. Here’s a sample output with defaults:

$ fmtree -c -p test
...
# .
/set type=file uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0644 nlink=1
.               type=dir mode=0755 nlink=4 time=1610421833.000000000
    empty       size=0 time=1610421833.000000000
    foo         nlink=2 size=3 time=1610421833.000000000
    hi          nlink=2 size=3 time=1610421833.000000000
    there       type=link mode=0777 time=1610421833.000000000 link=hi

... skipping ...

# ./somethingdir
/set type=file uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0777 nlink=1
somethingdir    type=dir mode=0755 nlink=2 time=1610421833.000000000
    there       type=link time=1610421833.000000000 link=../there
# ./somethingdir
..

..

You might be wondering here what it does about special characters, and the answer is that it has octal escapes, so it is 8-bit clean.

To compare, you can save the output of fmtree to a file, then run like this:

cd test
fmtree < ../test.fmtree

If there is no output, then the trees are identical. Change something and you get a line of of output explaining each difference. You can also use fmtree -U to change things like modification dates to match the specification.

fmtree also supports quite a few optional keywords you can add with -K. They include things like file flags, user/group names, various tipes of hashes, and so forth. I'll note that none of the options can let you determine which files are hardlinked together.

Here's an excerpt with -K sha256digest added:

    empty       size=0 time=1610421833.000000000 \
                sha256digest=e3b0c44298fc1c149afbf4c8996fb92427ae41e4649b934ca495991b7852b855
    foo         nlink=2 size=3 time=1610421833.000000000 \
                sha256digest=98ea6e4f216f2fb4b69fff9b3a44842c38686ca685f3f55dc48c5d3fb1107be4

If you include a sha256digest in the spec, then when you verify it with fmtree, the verification will also include the sha256digest. Obviously fmtree -U can't correct a mismatch there, but of course it will detect and report it.

Tool option: mtree, the NetBSD mtree (Debian package: mtree-netbsd)

mtree produces (by default) output very similar to fmtree. With minor differences (such as the name of the sha256digest in the output), the discussion above about fmtree also applies to mtree.

There are some differences, and the most notable is that mtree adds a -C option which reads a spec and converts it to a "format that's easier to parse with various tools." Here's an example:

$ mtree -c -K sha256digest -p test | mtree -C
. type=dir uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0755 nlink=4 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./empty type=file uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0644 nlink=1 size=0 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./foo type=file uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0644 nlink=2 size=3 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./hi type=file uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0644 nlink=2 size=3 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./there type=link uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0777 nlink=1 link=hi time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./emptydir type=dir uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0755 nlink=2 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./somethingdir type=dir uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0755 nlink=2 time=1610421833.0 flags=none 
./somethingdir/there type=link uid=1000 gid=1000 mode=0777 nlink=1 link=../there time=1610421833.0 flags=none 

Most definitely an improvement in both space and convenience, while still retaining the relevant information. Note that if you want the sha256digest in the formatted output, you need to pass the -K to both mtree invocations. I could have done that here, but it is easier to read without it.

mtree can verify a specification in either format. Given what I'm about to show you about bsdtar, this should illustrate why I bothered to package mtree-netbsd for Debian.

Unlike fmtree, the mtree -U command will not adjust modification times based on the spec, but it will report on differences.

Tool option: bsdtar (Debian package: libarchive-tools)

bsdtar is a fascinating program that can work with many formats other than just tar files. Among the formats it supports is is the NetBSD mtree "pleasant" format (mtree -C compatible).

bsdtar can also convert between the formats it supports. So, put this together: bsdtar can convert a tar file to an mtree specification without extracting the tar file. bsdtar can also use an mtree specification to override the permissions on files going into tar -c, so it is a way to prepare a tar file with things owned by root without resorting to tools like fakeroot.

Let's look at how this can work:

$ cd test
$ bsdtar --numeric -cf - --format=mtree .
#mtree
. time=1610472086.318593729 mode=755 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=dir
./empty time=1610421833.0 mode=644 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=file size=0
./foo nlink=2 time=1610421833.0 mode=644 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=file size=3
./hi nlink=2 time=1610421833.0 mode=644 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=file size=3
./ormat\075mtree time=1610472086.318593729 mode=644 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=file size=5632
./there time=1610421833.0 mode=777 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=link link=hi
./emptydir time=1610421833.0 mode=755 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=dir
./somethingdir time=1610421833.0 mode=755 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=dir
./somethingdir/there time=1610421833.0 mode=777 gid=1000 uid=1000 type=link link=../there

You can use mtree -U to verify that as before. With the --options mtree: set, you can also add hashes and similar to the bsdtar output. Since bsdtar can use input from tar, pax, cpio, zip, iso9660, 7z, etc., this capability can be used to create verification of the files inside quite a few different formats. You can convert with bsdtar -cf output.mtree --format=mtree @input.tar. There are some foibles with directly using these converted files with mtree -U, but usually minor changes will get it there.

Side mention: stat(1) (Debian package: coreutils)

This tool isn't included because it won't operate recursively, but is a tool in the similar toolbox.

Putting It Together

I will still be developing a complete non-ZFS backup system for NNCP (or UUCP) in a future post. But in the meantime, here are some ideas you can reflect on:

  • Let's say your backup scheme involves sending a full backup every night. On the source system, you could pipe the generated tar file through something like tee >(bsdtar -cf bcakup.mtree @-) to generate an mtree file in-band while generating the tar file. This mtree file could be shipped over for verification.
  • Perhaps your backup scheme involves sending incremental backup data via rdup or even ZFS, but you would like to periodically verify that everything is good -- that an incremental didn't miss something. Something like mtree -K sha256 -c -x -p / | mtree -C -K sha256 would let you accomplish that.

I will further develop at least one of these ideas in a future post.

Bonus: cross-tool comparisons

In my mtree-netbsd packaging, I added tests like this to compare between tools:

fmtree -c -K $(MTREE_KEYWORDS) | mtree
mtree -c -K $(MTREE_KEYWORDS) | sed -e 's/\(md5\|sha1\|sha256\|sha384\|sha512\)=/\1digest=/' -e 's/rmd160=/ripemd160digest=/' | fmtree
bsdtar -cf - --options 'mtree:uname,gname,md5,sha1,sha256,sha384,sha512,device,flags,gid,link,mode,nlink,size,time,uid,type,uname' --format mtree . | mtree

More Topics on Store-And-Forward (Possibly Airgapped) ZFS and Non-ZFS Backups with NNCP

Note: this is another article in my series on asynchronous communication in Linux with UUCP and NNCP.

In my previous post, I introduced a way to use ZFS backups over NNCP. In this post, I’ll expand on that and also explore non-ZFS backups.

Use of nncp-file instead of nncp-exec

The previous example used nncp-exec (like UUCP’s uux), which lets you pipe stdin in, then queues up a request to run a given command with that input on a remote. I discussed that NNCP doesn’t guarantee order of execution, but that for the ZFS use case, that was fine since zfs receive would just fail (causing NNCP to try again later).

At present, nncp-exec stores the data piped to it in RAM before generating the outbound packet (the author plans to fix this shortly) [Update: This is now fixed; use -use-tmp with nncp-exec!). That made it unusable for some of my backups, so I set it up another way: with nncp-file, the tool to transfer files to a remote machine. A cron job then picks them up and processes them.

On the machine being backed up, we have to find a way to encode the dataset to be received. I chose to do that as part of the filename, so the updated simplesnap-queue could look like this:

#!/bin/bash

set -e
set -o pipefail

DEST="`echo $1 | sed 's,^tank/simplesnap/,,'`"
FILE="bakfsfmt2-`date "+%s.%N".$$`_`echo "$DEST" | sed 's,/,@,g'`"

echo "Processing $DEST to $FILE" >&2
# stdin piped to this
zstd -8 - \
  | gpg --compress-algo none --cipher-algo AES256 -e -r 012345...  \
  | su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B -noprogress - 'backupsvr:$FILE'" >&2

echo "Queued $DEST to $FILE" >&2

I’ve added compression and encryption here as well; more on that below.

On the backup server, we would define a different incoming directory for each node in nncp.hjson. For instance:

host1: {
...
   incoming: "/var/local/nncp-bakcups-incoming/host1"
}

host2: {
...
   incoming: "/var/local/nncp-backups-incoming/host2"
}

I’ll present the scanning script in a bit.

Offsite Backup Rotation

Most of the time, you don’t want just a single drive to store the backups. You’d like to have a set. At minimum, one wouldn’t be plugged in so lightning wouldn’t ruin all your backups. But maybe you’d store a second drive at some other location you have access to (friend’s house, bank box, etc.)

There are several ways you could solve this:

  • If the remote machine is at a location with network access and you trust its physical security (remember that although it will store data encrypted at rest and will transport it encrypted, it will — in most cases — handle un-encrypted data during processing), you could of course send NNCP packets to it over the network at the same time you send them to your local backup system.
  • Alternatively, if the remote location doesn’t have network access or you want to keep it airgapped, you could transport the NNCP packets by USB drive to the remote end.
  • Or, if you don’t want to have any kind of processing capability remotely — probably a wise move — you could rotate the hard drives themselves, keeping one plugged in locally and unplugging the other to take it offsite.

The third option can be helped with NNCP, too. One way is to create separate NNCP installations for each of the drives that you store data on. Then, whenever one is plugged in, the appropriate NNCP config will be loaded and appropriate packets received and processed. The neighbor machine — the spooler — would just store up packets for the offsite drive until it comes back onsite (or, perhaps, your airgapped USB transport would do this). Then when it’s back onsite, all the queued up ZFS sends get replayed and the backups replicated.

Now, how might you handle this with NNCP?

The simple way would be to have each system generating backups send them to two destinations. For instance:

zstd -8 - | gpg --compress-algo none --cipher-algo AES256 -e -r 07D5794CD900FAF1D30B03AC3D13151E5039C9D5 \
  | tee >(su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress - 'backupdisk1:$FILE'") \
        >(su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress - 'backupdisk2:$FILE'") \
   > /dev/null

You could probably also more safely use pee(1) (from moreutils) to do this.

This has an unfortunate result of doubling the network traffic from every machine being backed up. So an alternative option would be to queue the packets to the spooling machine, and run a distribution script from it; something like this, in part:

INCOMINGDIR="/var/local/nncp-bakfs-incoming"
LOCKFILE="$INCOMINGDIR/.lock"
printf -v EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE '%q' "$LOCKFILE"
if dotlockfile -r 0 -l -p "${LOCKFILE}"; then
  logit "Lock obtained at ${LOCKFILE} with dotlockfile"
  trap 'ECODE=$?; dotlockfile -u '"${EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE}"'; exit $ECODE' EXIT INT TERM
else
  logit "Could not obtain lock at $LOCKFILE; $0 likely already running."
  exit 0
fi


logit "Scanning queue directory..."
cd "$INCOMINGDIR"
for HOST in *; do
   cd "$INCOMINGDIR/$HOST"
   for FILE in bakfsfmt2-*; do
           if [ -f "$FILE" ]; then
                   for BAKFS in backupdisk1 backupdisk2; do
                           runcommand nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress "$FILE" "$BAKFS:$HOST/$FILE"
                   done
                   runcommand rm "$FILE"
           else
                   logit "$HOST: Skipping $FILE since it doesn't exist"
           fi
   done

done
logit "Scan complete."

Security Considerations

You’ll notice that in my example above, the encryption happens as the root user, but nncp is called under su. This means that even if there is a vulnerability in NNCP, the data would still be protected by GPG. I’ll also note here that many sites run ssh as root unnecessarily; the same principles should apply there. (ssh has had vulnerabilities in the past as well). I could have used gpg’s built-in compression, but zstd is faster and better, so we can get good performance by using fast compression and piping that to an algorithm that can use hardware acceleration for encryption.

I strongly encourage considering transport, whether ssh or NNCP or UUCP, to be untrusted. Don’t run it as root if you can avoid it. In my example, the nncp user, which all NNCP commands are run as, has no access to the backup data at all. So even if NNCP were compromised, my backup data wouldn’t be. For even more security, I could also sign the backup stream with gpg and validate that on the receiving end.

I should note, however, that this conversation assumes that a network- or USB-facing ssh or NNCP is more likely to have an exploitable vulnerability than is gpg (which here is just processing a stream). This is probably a safe assumption in general. If you believe gpg is more likely to have an exploitable vulnerability than ssh or NNCP, then obviously you wouldn’t take this particular approach.

On the zfs side, the use of -F with zfs receive is avoided; this could lead to a compromised backed-up machine generating a malicious rollback on the destination. Backup zpools should be imported with -R or -N to ensure that a malicious mountpoint property couldn’t be used to cause an attack. I choose to use “zfs receive -u -o readonly=on” which is compatible with both unmounted backup datasets and zpools imported with -R (or both). To access the data in a backup dataset, you would normally clone it and access it there.

The processing script

So, put this all together and look at an example of a processing script that would run from cron as root and process the incoming ZFS data.

#!/bin/bash
set -e
set -o pipefail

# Log a message
logit () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log an error message
logerror () {
   logger -p err -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log stdin with the given code.  Used normally to log stderr.
logstdin () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$/$1]"
}

# Run command, logging stderr and exit code
runcommand () {
   logit "Running $*"
   if "$@" 2> >(logstdin "$1") ; then
      logit "$1 exited successfully"
      return 0
   else
       RETVAL="$?"
       logerror "$1 exited with error $RETVAL"
       return "$RETVAL"
   fi
}

STORE=backups/simplesnap
INCOMINGDIR=/backups/nncp/incoming

if ! [ -d "$INCOMINGDIR" ]; then
        logerror "$INCOMINGDIR doesn't exist"
        exit 0
fi

LOCKFILE="/backups/nncp/.nncp-backups-zfs-scan.lock"
printf -v EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE '%q' "$LOCKFILE"
if dotlockfile -r 0 -l -p "${LOCKFILE}"; then
  logit "Lock obtained at ${LOCKFILE} with dotlockfile"
  trap 'ECODE=$?; dotlockfile -u '"${EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE}"'; exit $ECODE' EXIT INT TERM
else
  logit "Could not obtain lock at $LOCKFILE; $0 likely already running."
  exit 0
fi

EXITCODE=0


cd "$INCOMINGDIR"
logit "Scanning queue directory..."
for HOST in *; do
    HOSTPATH="$INCOMINGDIR/$HOST"
    # files like backupsfmt2-134.13134_dest
    for FILE in "$HOSTPATH"/backupsfmt2-[0-9]*_?*; do
        if [ ! -f "$FILE" ]; then
            logit "Skipping non-existent $FILE"
            continue
        fi

        # Now, $DEST will be HOST/DEST.  Strip off the @ also.
        DEST="`echo "$FILE" | sed -e 's/^.*backupsfmt2[^_]*_//' -e 's,@,/,g'`"

        if [ -z "$DEST" ]; then
            logerror "Malformed dest in $FILE"
            continue
        fi
        HOST2="`echo "$DEST" | sed 's,/.*,,g'`"
        if [ -z "$HOST2" ]; then
            logerror "Malformed DEST $DEST in $FILE"
            continue
        fi

        if [ ! "$HOST" = "$HOST2" ]; then
            logerror "$DIR: $HOST doesn't match $HOST2"
            continue
        fi

        logit "Processing $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
            if runcommand gpg -q -d < "$FILE" | runcommand zstdcat | runcommand zfs receive -u -o readonly=on "$STORE/$DEST"; then
                logit "Successfully processed $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
                runcommand rm "$FILE"
        else
                logerror "FAILED to process $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
                EXITCODE=15
        fi

Applying These Ideas to Non-ZFS Backups

ZFS backups made our job easier in a lot of ways:

  • ZFS can calculate a diff based on an efficiently-stored previous local state (snapshot or bookmark), rather than a comparison to a remote state (rsync)
  • ZFS "incremental" sends, while less efficient than rsync, are reasonably efficient, sending only changed blocks
  • ZFS receive detects and enforces that the incremental source on the local machine must match the incremental source of the original stream, enforcing ordering
  • Datasets using ZFS encryption can be sent in their encrypted state
  • Incrementals can be done without a full scan of the filesystem

Some of these benefits you just won't get without ZFS (or something similar like btrfs), but let's see how we could apply these ideas to non-ZFS backups. I will explore the implementation of them in a future post.

When I say "non ZFS", I am being a bit vague as to whether the source, the destination, or both systems are running a non-ZFS filesystem. In general I'll assume that neither are ZFS.

The first and most obvious answer is to just tar up the whole system and send that every day. This is, of course, only suitable for small datasets on a fast network. These tarballs could be unpacked on the destination and stored more efficiently via any number of methods (hardlink trees, a block-level deduplicator like borg or rdedup, or even just simply compressed tarballs).

To make the network trip more efficient, something like rdiff or xdelta could be used. A signature file could be stored on the machine being backed up (generated via tee/pee at stream time), and the next run could simply send an rdiff delta over NNCP. This would be quite network-efficient, but still would require reading every byte of every file on every backup, and would also require quite a bit of temporary space on the receiving end (to apply the delta to the previous tarball and generate a new one).

Alternatively, a program that generates incremental backup files such as rdup could be used. These could be transmitted over NNCP to the backup server, and unpacked there. While perhaps less efficient on the network -- every file with at least one modified byte would be retransmitted in its entirety -- it avoids the need to read every byte of unmodified files or to have enormous temporary space. I should note here that GNU tar claims to have an incremental mode, but it has a potential data loss bug.

There are also some tools with algorithms that may apply well in this use care: syrep and fssync being the two most prominent examples, though rdedup (mentioned above) and the nascent asuran project may also be combinable with other tools to achieve this effect.

I should, of course, conclude this section by mentioning btrfs. Every time I've tried it, I've run into serious bugs, and its status page indicates that only some of them have been resolved. I would not consider using it for something as important as backups. However, if you are comfortable with it, it is likely to be able to run in more constrained environments than ZFS and could probably be processed in much the same way as zfs streams.

How & Why To Use Airgapped Backups

A good backup strategy needs to consider various threats to the integrity of data. For instance:

  • Building catches fire
  • Accidental deletion
  • Equipment failure
  • Security incident / malware / compromise

It’s that last one that is of particular interest today. A lot of backup strategies are such that if a user (or administrator) has their local account or network compromised, their backups could very well be destroyed as well. For instance, do you ssh from the account being backed up to the system holding the backups? Or rsync using a keypair stored on it? Or access S3 buckets, etc? It is trivially easy in many of these schemes to totally ruin cloud-based backups, or even some other schemes. rsync can be run with –delete (and often is, to prune remotes), S3 buckets can be deleted, etc. And even if you try to lock down an over-network backup to be append-only, still there are vectors for attack (ssh credentials, OpenSSL bugs, etc). In this post, I try to explore how we can protect against them and still retain some modern conveniences.

A backup scheme also needs to make a balance between:

  • Cost
  • Security
  • Accessibility
  • Efficiency (of time, bandwidth, storage, etc)

My story so far…

About 20 years ago, I had an Exabyte tape drive, with the amazing capacity of 7GB per tape! Eventually as disk prices fell, I had external disks plugged in to a server, and would periodically rotate them offsite. I’ve also had various combinations of partial or complete offsite copies over the Internet as well. I have around 6TB of data to back up (after compression), a figure that is growing somewhat rapidly as I digitize some old family recordings and videos.

Since I last wrote about backups 5 years ago, my scheme has been largely unchanged; at present I use ZFS for local and to-disk backups and borg for the copies over the Internet.

Let’s take a look at some options that could make this better.

Tape

The original airgapped backup. You back up to a tape, then you take the (fairly cheap) tape out of the drive and put in another one. In cost per GB, tape is probably the cheapest medium out there. But of course it has its drawbacks.

Let’s start with cost. To get a drive that can handle capacities of what I’d be needing, at least LTO-6 (2.5TB per tape) would be needed, if not LTO-7 (6TB). New, these drives cost several thousand dollars, plus they need LVD SCSI or Fibre Channel cards. You’re not going to be hanging one off a Raspberry Pi; these things need a real server with enterprise-style connectivity. If you’re particularly lucky, you might find an LTO-6 drive for as low as $500 on eBay. Then there are tapes. A 10-pack of LTO-6 tapes runs more than $200, and provides a total capacity of 25TB – sufficient for these needs (note that, of course, you need to have at least double the actual space of the data, to account for multiple full backups in a set). A 5-pack of LTO-7 tapes is a little more expensive, while providing more storage.

So all-in, this is going to be — in the best possible scenario — nearly $1000, and possibly a lot more. For a large company with many TB of storage, the initial costs can be defrayed due to the cheaper media, but for a home user, not so much.

Consider that 8TB hard drives can be found for $150 – $200. A pair of them (for redundancy) would run $300-400, and then you have all the other benefits of disk (quicker access, etc.) Plus they can be driven by something as cheap as a Raspberry Pi.

Fancier tape setups involve auto-changers, but then you’re not really airgapped, are you? (If you leave all your tapes in the changer, they can generally be selected and overwritten, barring things like hardware WORM).

As useful as tape is, for this project, it would simply be way more expensive than disk-based options.

Fundamentals of disk-based airgapping

The fundamental thing we need to address with disk-based airgapping is that the machines being backed up have no real-time contact with the backup storage system. This rules out most solutions out there, that want to sync by comparing local state with remote state. If one is willing to throw storage efficiency out the window — maybe practical for very small data sets — one could just send a full backup daily. But in reality, what is more likely needed is a way to store a local proxy for the remote state. Then a “runner” device (a USB stick, disk, etc) could be plugged into the network, filled with queued data, then plugged into the backup system to have the data dequeued and processed.

Some may be tempted to short-circuit this and just plug external disks into a backup system. I’ve done that for a long time. This is, however, a risk, because it makes those disks vulnerable to whatever may be attacking the local system (anything from lightning to ransomware).

ZFS

ZFS is, it should be no surprise, particularly well suited for this. zfs send/receive can send an incremental stream that represents a delta between two checkpoints (snapshots or bookmarks) on a filesystem. It can do this very efficiently, much more so than walking an entire filesystem tree.

Additionally, with the recent addition of ZFS crypto to ZFS on Linux, the replication stream can optionally reflect the encrypted data. Yes, as long as you don’t need to mount them, you can mostly work with ZFS datasets on an encrypted basis, and can directly tell zfs send to just send the encrypted data instead of the decrypted data.

The downside of ZFS is the resource requirements at the destination, which in terms of RAM are higher than most of the older Raspberry Pi-style devices. Still, one could perhaps just save off zfs send streams and restore them later if need be, but that implies a periodic resend of a full stream, an inefficient operation. dedpulicating software such as borg could be used on those streams (though with less effectiveness if they’re encrypted).

Tar

Perhaps surprisingly, tar in listed incremental mode can solve this problem for non-ZFS users. It will keep a local cache of the state of the filesystem as of the time of the last run of tar, and can generate new tarballs that reflect the changes since the previous run (even deletions). This can achieve a similar result to the ZFS send/receive, though in a much less elegant way.

Bacula / Bareos

Bacula (and its fork Bareos) both have support for a FIFO destination. Theoretically this could be used to queue of data for transfer to the airgapped machine. This support is very poorly documented in both and is rumored to have bitrotted, however.

rdiff and xdelta

rdiff and xdelta can be used as sort of a non-real-time rsync, at least on a per-file basis. Theoretically, one could generate a full backup (with tar, ZFS send, or whatever), take an rdiff signature, and send over the file while keeping the signature. On the next run, another full backup is piped into rdiff, and on the basis of the signature file of the old and the new data, it produces a binary patch that can be queued for the backup target to update its stored copy of the file.

This leaves history preservation as an exercise to be undertaken on the backup target. It may not necessarily be easy and may not be efficient.

rsync batches

rsync can be used to compute a delta between two directory trees and express this as a single-file batch that can be processed by a remote rsync. Unfortunately this implies the sender must always keep an old tree around (barring a solution such as ZFS snapshots) in order to compute the delta, and of course it still implies the need for history processing on the remote.

Getting the Data There

OK, so you’ve got an airgapped system, some sort of “runner” device for your sneakernet (USB stick, hard drive, etc). Now what?

Obviously you could just copy data on the runner and move it back off at the backup target. But a tool like NNCP (sort of a modernized UUCP) offer a lot of help in automating the process, returning error reports, etc. NNCP can be used online over TCP, over reliable serial links, over ssh, with offline onion routing via intermediaries or directly, etc.

Imagine having an airgapped machine at a different location you go to frequently (workplace, friend, etc). Before leaving, you put a USB stick in your pocket. When you get there, you pop it in. It’s despooled and processed while you want, and return emails or whatever are queued up to be sent when you get back home. Not bad, eh?

Future installment…

I’m going to try some of these approaches and report back on my experiences in the next few weeks.

Backing up every few minutes with simplesnap

I’ve written a lot lately about ZFS, and one of its very nice features is the ability to make snapshots that are lightweight, space-efficient, and don’t hurt performance (unlike, say, LVM snapshots).

ZFS also has “zfs send” and “zfs receive” commands that can send the content of the snapshot, or a delta between two snapshots, as a data stream – similar in concept to an amped-up tar file. These can be used to, for instance, very efficiently send backups to another machine. Rather than having to stat() every single file on a filesystem as rsync has to, it sends effectively an intelligent binary delta — which is also intelligent about operations such as renames.

Since my last search for backup tools, I’d been using BackupPC for my personal systems. But since I switched them to ZFS on Linux, I’ve been wanting to try something better.

There are a lot of tools out there to take ZFS snapshots and send them to another machine, and I summarized them on my wiki. I found zfSnap to work well for taking and rotating snapshots, but I didn’t find anything that matched my criteria for sending them across the network. It seemed par for the course for these tools to think nothing of opening up full root access to a machine from others, whereas I would much rather lock it down with command= in authorized_keys.

So I wrote my own, called simplesnap. As usual, I wrote extensive documentation for it as well, even though it is very simple to set up and use.

So, with BackupPC, a backup of my workstation took almost 8 hours. (Its “incremental” might take as few as 3 hours) With ZFS snapshots and simplesnap, it takes 25 seconds. 25 seconds!

So right now, instead of backing up once a day, I back up once an hour. There’s no reason I couldn’t back up every 5 minutes, in fact. The data consumes less space, is far faster to manage, and doesn’t require a nightly hours-long cleanup process like BackupPC does — zfs destroy on a snapshot just takes a few seconds.

I use a pair of USB disks for backups, and rotate them to offsite storage periodically. They simply run ZFS atop dm-crypt (for security) and it works quite well even on those slow devices.

Although ZFS doesn’t do file-level dedup like BackupPC does, and the lz4 compression I’ve set ZFS to use is less efficient than the gzip-like compression BackupPC uses, still the backups are more space-efficient. I am not quite sure why, but I suspect it’s because there is a lot less metadata to keep track of, and perhaps also because BackupPC has to store a new copy of a file if even a byte changes, whereas ZFS can store just the changed blocks.

Incidentally, I’ve packaged both zfSnap and simplesnap for Debian and both are waiting in NEW.