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9.1.1.2. Incremental backups with tar

The tar tool supports the creation of incremental backups, using the -N option. With this option, you can specify a date, and tar will check modification time of all specified files against this date. If files are changed more recent than date, they will be included in the backup. The example below uses the timestamp on a previous archive as the date value. First, the initial archive is created and the timestamp on the initial backup file is shown. Then a new file is created, upon which we take a new backup, containing only this new file:


jimmy:~> tar cvpf /var/tmp/javaproggies.tar java/*.java
java/btw.java
java/error.java
java/hello.java
java/income2.java
java/income.java
java/inputdevice.java
java/input.java
java/master.java
java/method1.java
java/mood.java
java/moodywaitress.java
java/test3.java
java/TestOne.java
java/TestTwo.java
java/Vehicle.java

jimmy:~> ls -l /var/tmp/javaproggies.tar
-rw-rw-r-- 1 jimmy   jimmy   10240 Jan 21 11:58 /var/tmp/javaproggies.tar

jimmy:~> touch java/newprog.java

jimmy:~> tar -N /var/tmp/javaproggies.tar \
-cvp /var/tmp/incremental1-javaproggies.tar java/*.java 2> /dev/null
java/newprog.java

jimmy:~> cd /var/tmp/

jimmy:~> tar xvf incremental1-javaproggies.tar
java/newprog.java

Standard errors are redirected to /dev/null. If you don't do this, tar will print a message for each unchanged file, telling you it won't be dumped.

This way of working has the disadvantage that it looks at timestamps on files. Say that you download an archive into the directory containing your backups, and the archive contains files that have been created two years ago. When checking the timestamps of those files against the timestamp on the initial archive, the new files will actually seem old to tar, and will not be included in an incremental backup made using the -N option.

A better choice would be the -g option, which will create a list of files to backup. When making incremental backups, files are checked against this list. This is how it works:


jimmy:~> tar cvpf work-20030121.tar -g snapshot-20030121 work/
work/
work/file1
work/file2
work/file3

jimmy:~> file snapshot-20030121
snapshot-20030121: ASCII text

The next day, user jimmy works on file3 a bit more, and creates file4. At the end of the day, he makes a new backup:


jimmy:~> tar cvpf work-20030122.tar -g snapshot-20030121 work/
work/
work/file3
work/file4

These are some very simple examples, but you could also use this kind of command in a cronjob (see Section 4.4.4), which specifies for instance a snapshot file for the weekly backup and one for the daily backup. Snapshot files should be replaced when taking full backups, in that case.

More information can be found in the tar documentation.

Tip The real stuff
 

As you could probably notice, tar is OK when we are talking about a simple directory, a set of files that belongs together. There are tools that are easier to manage, however, when you want to archive entire partitions or disks or larger projects. We just explain about tar here because it is a very popular tool for distributing archives. It will happen quite often that you need to install a software that comes in a so-called "compressed tarball". See Section 9.3 for an easier way to perform regular backups.

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