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Using NFS for Networked Backups

by Glenn Graham

Arguments abound between system administrators as to the correct way to back up a network of Unix hosts. Some argue that tapes are the answer, while others lean toward more modern means, such as rewritable CD-ROMs. No matter the method, the end goal remains: to back up hosts over a network, in a manner that is conveniently indexed and easily retrieved.

During the late 80s, I decided to cut costs by using a spare server running NFS along with a single 500MB tape drive loaded with ¼" DC6525 tape cartridges. The idea was simple and performed well. I dedicated three tapes per host and performed a revolving backup of each host three times a week. The only problem was that the media was cumbersome and, in many cases, unreliable. Gone are the days of DC6525s; they've been replaced by more expensive, complex devices.

Over the past year, I've been revamping my network of 24 hosts. Before I began, I considered writable CD-ROMs and other commercial products. After comparing the cost of commercial products to mass storage drives, I concluded it would be more economical to construct a central NFS server running Linux. Based on my original model, I replaced the tape drive with two hot-swappable SCSI drives running RAID. This allows for real-time backup, removable data, and future expansion.

Throughout this article I will discuss some very basic methods used for NFS. Most are common knowledge, but are frequently put aside as being too complicated, antiquated, or difficult to implement. We will touch only the tip of the iceberg. These examples are only common guidelines, as NFS is infinitely customizable.

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Generally speaking, performing any type of backup requires some thought, planning, and in-depth knowledge of the files, peripherals, and role of each host. Within a network, no two backups are alike. The core backup consists of configuration files found under /etc, various cron files, and system-specific binaries. In the case of a server, we would back up /var/mail, web directories, or /var/db, depending on the server's role.

The first step in planning your backup is to carefully examine the target system(s) by mapping system-dependent files and including them in your scripts.

NFS Basics

Before we begin, let's introduce some basic NFS concepts. NFS is supported on UDP and was first introduced by Sun Microsystems in March 1989 under RFC1094. Many consider NFS insecure and vulnerable to a variety of exploits, especially the RPC portmapper. Despite its insecurities, NFS is still an accepted method of mounting and backing up remote file systems, especially across local networks. That said, when using NFS on an open network it is important to understand firewalling techniques. At a minimum, use TCP wrappers or whitelists provided under most /etc/hosts.allow configurations. Never run NFS unprotected, and always to kill mountd and rpc.portmap while not in use.

NFS operates on the principle of a remote mount and runs the Unix portmapper and mountd (the server used for NFS mount requests) daemons on each host. /etc/exports controls access to the server, containing a list of authorized hosts, along with user permissions and allowable directories.

From man mountd:

When mountd is started, it loads the export host addresses and options into the kernel using the mount system call. After changing the exports file, a hangup signal should be sent to the mountd daemon to get it to reload the export information. After sending the SIGHUP, check the syslog output to see if mountd logged any parsing errors in the exports file. If mountd detects that the running kernel does not include NFS support, it will attempt to load a loadable kernel module containing NFS code.

By default, most BSD kernels have NFS built in and configurable under /etc/rc.conf, whereas Linux requires a loaded module or kernel recompilation.

NFS Backup Principles

The theory of NFS backup is relatively simple: mount each host to the NFS server, write a .tar backup script, and check that the following permission sets conform on both machines:

  1. Read Write access.
  2. Mount permissions.
  3. GID/UID.

Exports and Permissions

The /etc/exports file controls various options allowed by the NFS server. In this example, would be mounted on NFS under /jack, and allowed to read and write to /jack.

# File /etc/exports on NFS Server
# When backing up an entire system, including root files (UID 0)
# you would use the no_root_squash option as outlined below *
# For files belonging to jack, the only option required is 'rw'


The UID/GID set can be somewhat confusing, especially if the NFS server and hosts are different Unix flavors, or if they use different password schemas. The owner and group are UID/GID dependent, and must be identical on the client and server. If user jack has UID 2020 on client jack, he must also have UID 2020 on the NFS server.

In case UID 2020 already exists on the NFS server as say, user sam, writing UID 2020 from the client to the server would appear on the server as sam. Also, if UID 2020 doesn't already exist, the files would simply appear as owned by UID 2020, without user identification. (We often see this scenerio when untarring a file from a remote FTP download where user joe, UID 1010, may inadvertently be another user on our system, so the file untars and appears to be owned by that user.)

When restoring, it's important to ensure the UID/GID matches the restoration on the target host for the same reason stated above.

From man exports:

Very often, it is not desirable that the root user on a client machine be treated as root when accessing files on the NFS server. To this end, uid 0 is normally mapped to a different id: the so-called anonymous or nobody uid. This mode of operation (called "root squashing") is the default, and can be turned off with no_root_squash. Use caution when configuring this option.

Be sure to back up password and group files as a standard procedure. Any time you add or delete a user from the client, update the group and password files.

Two Simple NFS Server Scripts

In this example, we start rpc.portmap, rpc.mountd, and rpc.nfsd and write out a PID for each process to

# Script to start NFS
sleep 1

sleep 1

/sbin/pidof /usr/sbin/rpc.portmap > /var/run/
/sbin/pidof /usr/sbin/rpc.nfsd >> /var/run/
/sbin/pidof /usr/sbin/rpc.mountd >> /var/run/
echo "NFS READY"

To stop NFS, we use the following script to kill everything listed in, killing all three processes:

# Script to stop NFS
kill `cat /var/run/`
/bin/rm /var/run/

The Synchronized Backup

We can synchronize our backups by setting a cron job on each host and server to start, stop, and use NFS at a specific time. After a backup window, each host shuts down its NFS services. In order to synchronize properly, each host should be timed to a central NTP server for accuracy.

The NFS server is initiated from cron by a script similar to the one shown above, and remains active for a specified period of time, depending on the period set for a full backup. For a large backup, 30 minutes is usually fine. Next, each client mounts a drive on the server, writes its files, then umounts. This example uses tar. Other methods include dump.

# File NFSBackup Script for
echo 'Initialize NFS Backup'
mount /mnt/jack

echo "Is mounted?"
read ans;

echo "Full Backup of Jack to follow"
sleep 4

cd /mnt/jack
tar -cvvf  jack.tar /vmlinuz / /root /mydocs /etc
/bin /sbin /var/local /var/spool /usr/sbin /usr/bin home
/usr/home/glenn /usr/home/ifconfig
sleep 5

umount /mnt/jack
echo "finished"

Restoring Files

In almost every instance, restoration is a manual process, and even today, a full restore can be confusing, especially where the target system is used as a multipurpose host. Under typical circumstances, I restore a system by mounting the host to the NFS server, and perform the backup by reading from the remote filesystem.

Mount to using the mount command:

mount /mnt/jack;

then cd to /mnt/jack.

To restore, simply untar jack.tar from

tar -xvf jack.tar

Copy the necessary files from /mnt/jack to the appropriate locations.

This is only one of many available options.


Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • In the case of a complete re-installation, make sure the freshly-installed OS version is the same as the original. This is especially important to ensure that all configuration files match.
  • Ensure all users have the same UID/GID as before. Check these IDs against the original password and group files. It is important to note each UID/GID corresponding to the individual remote system(s). It's not enough to simply restore everything as root.
  • Remember to restore the original kernel during a restoration. In the case of a Linux system, for example, run lilo or grub to load the kernel.
  • Remember to archive the backups and store them in a safe place, preferably off-site. Redundancy can save your data in case of a physical disaster.

Throughout my career working with Unix, I've seen fifty methods of backup that include sophisticated hardware, media, and variations of GUIs and Web-based interfaces. While some still exist, many have faded into the background. In my opinion, combining NFS with tar (or dump) is still the best option. It takes some knowledge to configure an NFS backup properly, but in the end, it is definitely one of the most reliable means of protecting valuable data.

Glenn Graham has been working with telecommunications since 1977.

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