Suppose we have a bunch of files we’d like to have backed up on a remote host periodically. In this post, I’ll describe my setup that uses rsync with cron.

Remote host setup

First we’ll need a place to back up to. I also have a Digital Ocean box, whose IP address is known to me. Any remote box with sufficient disk space would do: all we need is a way to access it. I have an entry for my remote box in the /etc/hosts file (I call it “dome”):

# /etc/hosts
xx.xx.xx.xx dome

On this box, I have a ~/backup/ directory, which will where all the backed up files from my local box will land.

For security, I an ssh key added to the remote box to let it identify connections from my local box. To do this, first generate a keypair if you haven’t:

$ ssh-keygen

Now make note of the public key (found in e.g., ~/.ssh/ and ssh to the remote host (using, say, a password). Then, edit the file ~/.ssh/authorized_keys on the remote host and paste your full public key in there. That’s it. To test if this worked, try sshing again to the remote host. This time, it should not ask for a password (of course, if your usernames on local and remote differ, you’ll have to ssh remote_username@remote_host).

Local setup

I maintain the list of files to be backed up in a file, ~/backup.txt, which lists a path relative to my home directory per line. The rules are:

  • Files are copied normally.
  • Symlinks are traversed and their referrents are copied.
  • Directories, when listed without a trailing slash, are copied recursively and end up on the backup server with the toplevel directory intact.
  • Directories, when list with a trailing slash, have their contents copied out into the remote backup directory.


will backup ~/, ~/Documents and ~/Projects (the latter two being directories) to ~/backup/, ~/backup/Documents, ~/backup/Projects, respectively. However, the contents of ~/Bak are copied directly to ~/backup.


The rsync command is pretty simple:

$ rsync \
    -avz \                          # copy in [a]rchive mode, [v]erbose, compressed.
    --files-from=~/backup.txt \     # our file list.
    $HOME \                         # this is prefixed to every path in the file.
    ys@dome:~/backup                # remote path

Scheduling backups

I have an hourly cronjob that runs the above command. To set it up, do

$ crontab -e

and then add the following line:

0 * * * *  rsync -az --files-from=/home/ys/backup.txt /home/ys ys@dome:~/backup

and exit. Whenever a new path is added to the backup list, the next run of our cronjob will copy it over to the remote. For existing files, rsync only sends the deltas.