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Rsync Tricks


rsync is a utility for efficiently transferring and synchronizing files between a computer and an external hard drive and across networked computers by comparing the modification times and sizes of files. It is commonly found on Unix-like operating systems.

In other words, it's the linux hobbyist's best friend when it comes to efficient networked data transfer between SSH-enabled hosts.

Over the years I've gathered quite a few tips and tricks for (ab)using the power of rsync.

Preview mode🔗

Preview mode

Before proceeding with actual transfers, or when using the dangerous --delete flag, it's useful to get a preview of the operations rsync will perform.

List files present on SRC but not on DEST🔗

This offers an accurate preview of what will get transfered over the wire:

rsync -avu --delete DEST/ SRC/ -n | grep -E "^deleting "


Notice the -n flag, the shorthand for --dry-run.

It is wise to always use it for testing commands which --delete things.

List files that would be transferred from SRC to DEST🔗

rsync -avP --size-only SRC/ DEST/ -ni | grep -E '^<'

Mirror mode🔗

Mirror mode

Sometimes it's useful to mirror a local directory structure using hard links.

A good example is wanting to use a backup tool that does not yet support advanced include/exclude/filter logic.

We can piggyback on rsync to do that for us, then run the tool against the filtered "mirror".

Mirror ROOT to ROOT/.rsync_mirror using a .rsync_exclude file🔗

rsync -av --delete \
  --exclude-from ROOT/.rsync_exclude \
  --link-dest="ROOT" \
  "ROOT/" "ROOT/.rsync_mirror/"

Mirror ROOT to ROOT/.rsync_mirror using a .rsync_filter file🔗

rsync -av --delete \
  --filter=". ROOT/.rsync_filter" \
  --link-dest="ROOT" \
  "ROOT/" "ROOT/.rsync_mirror/"


To avoid cycles make sure the exclude or filter file references itself, as well as the mirror directory:


Controlling transfers🔗

Controlling transfers

Sometimes, due to limited computing capacity on the receiver, or simply because we're dealing with compressed binary files, it's useful to skip the checksum checks and act solely based on the file-size.

This can be achieved using the --size-only flag.

Other times, we're not interesting in all the stuff that the -a archive mode would transfer.

We can easily exclude a bunch of stuff: --no-perms --no-owner --no-group --omit-dir-times

When computing power permits, force checksum-based skipping even when the mtime and the size of a file match by using the --checksum flag.

Use the -N flag to transfer the creation time of files. Good for those special cameras who don't include timestamps in the file names.

Transfer only the directory structure🔗

Simply tell rsync to filter in everything that looks like a directory and filter out everything else:

rsync -av -f"+ */" -f"- *" SRC/ DEST/

Alternatively, using the include/exclude options:

rsync -av --include='*/' --exclude='*' SRC/ DEST/

Filter based on file prefixes🔗

rsync -avP --size-only -f"+ IMG_2021*" -f"+ PANO_2021*" -f"- *" SRC/ DEST/images/
rsync -avP --size-only -f"+ VID_2021*" -f"- *" SRC/ DEST/videos/

Use different SSH keys and/or parameters🔗

rsync -avP -e 'ssh -i /path/to/key.file' SRC/ DEST/

Change ownership & permissions during transfer🔗

rsync -rvP --usermap=:user1 --chown:user1:user1 <SRC>/ <DEST>/

Pro tips🔗

Here be dragons

Congratulations for making it thus far. Let the fun stuff begin!

Detect file moves & renames🔗

Sometimes we get in that special mood of moving files and directories around in an effort to take control of the festering pile of bytes that make up our hard acquired digital hoards.

We proceed with the re-org, only to realize, with a certain degree of horror, that we now have to sync the changes to the a redundant remote hoard. Why the horror? Because rsync will transfer the entire content of moved files, unable to detect complex move operations. (No, the --fuzzy flag doesn't help.)

So what gives?

BEFORE the re-org - make a hard linked copy of the working tree, either by using the rsync itself or a simple cp:

cp -rlp ~/media/photo ~/media/photo-work

Now do the re-org in the ~/media/photo-work dir: renaming, moving, adding and deleting as you see fit, but DO NOT touch the tree in ~/media/photo.

When done with the re-org:

rsync -avP --hard-links --delete-after --no-inc-recursive \
  ~/media/photo ~/media/photo-work remotebox:~/media/

Finalize by swapping the original and -work trees on both machines.

Parallelize transfers🔗

We already know how to preview file transfers.

Let's keep the filenames only and use split in streaming (round-robin) mode to create equal work logs for a bunch of rsync workers:

rsync -avP --size-only SRC/ DEST/ -ni | grep -E '^<' \
  | cut -d" " -f2 | split - -n r/8 /tmp/transfers.


The -n r/8 flag tells split to use round-robin for populating 8 output files, splitting the input at the line boundary. Since it's impossible to know the length of standard input data in advance, this is the only viable splitting strategy.

Then use parallel and the --files-from flag to start the actual transfers:

ls /tmp/transfers.* | parallel --lb -t -j 8 rsync -avP --files-from {} SRC/ DEST/


The -j 8 flag matches the number of files we've generated with split.

Caveat: the method outlined here does not guarantee an even distribution of transferred data between workers.

Back up entire filesystems🔗

rsync -a -A --checksum --delete \
  --hard-links --sparse --devices \
  --numeric-ids --xattrs \