Why my home backup situation is currently a bit awkward

January 26, 2016

In this recent entry I mentioned that my home backup strategy is an awkward subject. Today I want to talk about why that is so, which has two or perhaps three sides; the annoyances of hardware, that disks are slow, and that software doesn't just do what I want, partly because I want contradictory things.

In theory, the way to good backups is straightforward. You buy an external disk drive enclosure and a disk for it, connect it to your machine periodically, and 'do a backup' (whatever that is). Ideally you will be disciplined about how frequently you do this. And indeed, relatively early on I set myself up to do this, except that back then I made a mistake; rather than get an external enclosure with both USB and eSATA, I got one with just USB because I had (on my machine at the time) no eSATA ports. To be more precise I got an enclosure with USB 2.0, because that's what was available at the time.

If you know USB 2.0 disk performance, you are now wincing. USB 2.0 disks are dog slow, at least on Linux (I believe I once got a benchmark result on the order of 15 MBytes/sec), and they also usually hammer the responsiveness of your machine into the ground. On top of that I didn't really trust the heat dissipation of the external drive case, which meant that I was nervous about leaving the drive powered on and running overnight or the like. So I didn't do too many backups to that external enclosure and drive. It was just too much of a pain for too long.

With my second external drive case and drive, I learned better (at least in theory); I bought a case with USB and eSATA. Unfortunately only USB 2.0, and then something in the combination of the eSATA port on my new machine and the case didn't work really reliably. I've been able to sort of work around that but the workaround doesn't make me really happy to have the drive connected, there's still a performance impact from backups, and the heat concerns haven't gone away.

(My replacement for the eSATA port is to patch a regular SATA port through the case. This works but makes me nervous and I think I've seen it have some side effects on the machine when the drive connects or disconnects. In general, eSATA is probably not the right technology here.)

This brings me to slow disks. I can't remember how fast my last backup run went, but between the overheads of actually making backups (in walking the filesystem and reading files and so on) and the overheads of writing them out, I'd be surprised if they ran faster than 50 MBytes/sec (and I suspect they went somewhat slower). At that rate, it takes an hour to back up only 175 GB. With current disks and hardware, backups of lots of data are just going to be multi-hour things, which does not encourage me to do them regularly at the best of times.

(Life would be different if I could happily leave the backups to run when I wasn't present, but I don't trust the heat dissipation of the external drive case that much, or for that matter the 'eSATA' connection. Right now I feel I have to actively watch the whole process.)

As I wrote up in more detail here, my ideal backup software would basically let me incrementally make full backups. Lacking something to do that, the low effort system I've wound up with for most things uses dump. Dump captures exact full backups of extN filesystems and can be compressed (and I can keep multiple copies), but it's not something you can do incrementally. Running dump against a filesystem is an all or nothing affair; either you let it run for as many hours as it winds up taking, or you abort it and get nothing. Using dump also requires manually managing the process, including keeping track of old filesystem backups and removing some of them to make space for new ones.

(Life would be somewhat different if my external backup disk was much larger than my system disk, but as it happens it isn't.)

This is far from an ideal situation. In theory I could have regular, good backups; in practice there is enough friction in all of the various pieces that I have de facto bad ones, generally only made when something makes me alarmed. Since I'm a sysadmin and I preach the gospel of backups in general, this feels especially embarrassing (and awkward).

(I think I see what I want my situation to look like moving forwards, but this entry is long enough without trying to get into that.)

Written on 26 January 2016.
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Last modified: Tue Jan 26 23:18:37 2016
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