In part 1 and part 2 of this series we set up a remote image file as the backup storage, and learned how to use Backup gem to back up a database and small data directories.

But it leaves us with one more task – back up all this uploads, attachments, user pictures and other directories which quite often contain thousands, if not millions of files.

It is possible to do it naively using Backup gem, of course, but by doing so we’ll be wasting our disk space on storing multiple copies of the same data, not to mention compression these huge dirs can take quite some time.

Thankfully, rsync utility has a very useful mode —link-dest, which we can use in this case.

This technique is based on Mike Rubel’s article Easy Automated Snapshot-Style Backups with Linux and Rsync If you’re interested in a low-level explanation of all the details – make sure to read Mike’s original.

Rsync and hard links for file directory backups

3.1. Brief overview

To solve the problem of efficiently backing up large number of files, let’s turn to Linux’s native concept of hard links. You might be very well familiar with soft links, as in ln -s ones – for example, many deployment tools such as capistrano are using them quite extensively. Soft links are “aliases” for files or directories elsewhere in the filesystem. But being merely an alias, they’re becoming dead once the file they’re linking to is gone (say, deleted).

Unlike soft links, hard links are as good as the “original” file descriptor - which means that even if the file is deleted in its original place, as long as there are any hard links pointing to that file – it is still available via these links.

Rsync, when running with --link-dest=<DIR> argument, will examine the files it is transferring and compare them to the files in the given directory, and when an exact match is found – instead of copying the file, it will just hard link it to the existing one. That not only saves disk space when the snapshots are very similar, but also increases the backup speed, as rsync doesn’t need to physically copy the files in these cases.

3.2. Rsync backup script

To make the process easier, I wrote a bash script that takes care of all the configuration and runtime details for the process. Grab a copy here:

The only thing you need to change in the script is the configuration part, which is 4 lines in it’s header – provide a path to rsync binary, sources and destination directories (with the latter being the mount path for the image we have set up in the previous parts), and how many backups you want to keep. The script will automatically be rotating the backups, and remove the ones which are falling out of the threshold.

Download the file, set up the configuration, and you’re good to go. You can always run it manually once to see what it is doing, or even use -n option to perform a dry-run – see the header of the script for the explanation of possible runtime arguments.

Putting it all together

And that brings us to the end. You now know how to set up a remote image file as a container for your backups, how to use Backup gem to back up databases and simple files and directories, and how to use rsync to back up a really large file structures.

Have any questions left? Feel free to ask them in the comments.