Personal backup strategy

2013-02-08 — Article of 800 words - Available in Italiano Programming Git Unison mr Robocopy TrueCrypt Backup

The problem

I use a Windows desktop at work, another one at home, and a Linux laptop during commuting. The laptop is for personal projects and the home desktop is for photo management and retouching. Many of the files are shared, so I have to synchronize them among computers. Moreover I want to have an up-to-date copy of the files in my home NAS, from where I can make a backup.

I started some years ago with a manual solution: moving files among computers using a USB disk. But it was easy to overlook something or to overwrite files with older versions.

So I searched for a better method.

By reading articles and blog posts, I evolved my requirements from a simple safe copy to a complete synchronization and backup strategy, and I tried to develop a more robust and automated solution.

The requirements

To sum up the requirements, it must be possible to:

  • view which files are changed on a computer and easily synchronize them with other computers
  • configure the synchronization to specify which files must be synchronized and which not
  • synchronize an up-to-date copy of all important files to a centralized location from where I can make a backup
  • easily backup and restore files maintaining multiple verified copies
  • use the the same procedures on Windows and Linux (where possible, see later)

These requirements are based on two core concepts:

  • synchronization and backup must be easy: if they weren’t easy, I won’t do it that often, loosing many of the benefits of such a strategy
  • synchronization and backup are distinct tasks: synchronization is about availability, backup is about insurance; maybe they can use the same tools, but treating them separately could help to devise a better overall strategy

The solution (for now)


The synchronization strategy is based on treating differently text files and binary files.

Software projects, Linux dot files, Emacs configuration, text documents and notes are all maintained in several git repositories and synchronized through a combination of private and public Bitbucket projects. Open source projects are synchronized even on Github. I use mr to clone and combine these repositories into my home directory. With mr update, mr status and mr push I can easily manage and synchronize the home directories of my Linux and Windows (Cygwin) systems.

Office documents, pdf files, and images are synchronized among computers using my home NAS as a “hub”. The synchronization is made with Unison on Linux and with Allway Sync on Windows. I chose different tools because Allway Sync is more efficient on Windows, especially if you consider that from the home desktop I synchronize my photographic archive of more than 100 GB.

This strategy has some important limitations:

  • I can synchronize text files everywhere there is an Internet connection, but I can synchronize binary files only at home; for me this is not a problem as binary files are mainly for reference and so I don’t need to update them so often
  • the system works better if you use more text file than binary files (see the previous point); I slowly changed my habit by switching from Office documents to text files, but I have no regret because I learned Emacs and its terrific Org mode

If you need to work on multiple systems and you can stand those limitations, you will gain in flexibility and speed.


The backup strategy is based on my home NAS, where I have two file groups:

  • irreplaceables: if I loose these files I can’t reproduce them anymore; they are, for the most part, the files synchronized among computers and to the NAS itself: projects, documents, notes, photos
  • replaceables: if I loose these files I can reproduce them again (for example a copy of a photo exported in a particular format, that I can reproduce from the original); they are partly synchronized among computers and partly only present on NAS

Replaceable files are mirrored to an USB disk (500 GB) that I keep at home.

Irreplaceable files are mirrored to two USB disks (500 GB), that I rotate weekly among home and workplace. The disks are encrypted with TrueCrypt, and the copy is verified with MD5 hashes using HaskDeep. So if something very bad happen, and I loose the data synchronized on all my computers and on NAS, I have a safe copy that could be at worst one week old.

The mirroring is made on the Windows desktop using Robocopy.


You can find many articles and blog posts on synchronization and backup. For me, the most useful have been: