Rsync backup to Amazon EC2/EBS

I'm going paranoid. That's why I've decided to host my email myself and not rely on (and have to trust) a third party like Google / Gmail. Being my own sysadmin, however, it has now become my responsibility to keep my data safe so I decided I need some off-site backup system in place.

In this post I will walk through the creation of a script to automate rsync backups to an Amazon Elastic Block Store volume. This script could be run, for instance, from a cron job. I'm using rsync because it transports my data through a secure (ssh) channel and because of its bandwidth-efficient diffing algorithms.

By the way: yeah, I know about (did you?), but it's way cooler and gets you much more bragging rights to build it yourself!

The steps needed in the script are the following:

Step 1: setup

First we set some environment variables to make our life easier later on. You'll also have to get the ec2 command line tools. They are a simple download and unzip, no further installation is required. After you have them installed, include their bin dir in your PATH and tell them where they live with the EC2_HOME environment variable.

export PATH="~/bin/ec2-api-tools/bin:$PATH"
export EC2_HOME="~/bin/ec2-api-tools"

Now install Java if you haven't already. You'll want to grab the official Sun Java and not the OpenJDK version because using that resulted in some ugly ClassNotFoundExceptions. Tell ec2 where java lives:

export JAVA_HOME=/usr/lib/jvm/java-6-sun

You'll need your ec2 private key and certificate that you can generate from your account page at AWS. Put them in your homedir and chmod 400 them. You'll also need to generate a keypair for logging into your instance with SSH. The easiest way to generate the keypair is with the AWS management console. It will give you the private key for download and install the public key on your instances that use this keypair (we'll get to that later). In the example below ssh.pem is the private part of the keypair generated with the management console.

export EC2_PRIVATE_KEY=~/.ec2/pk-xxxxxx.pem
export EC2_CERT=~/.ec2/cert-xxxxxx.pem
export EC2_SSH_KEY=~/.ec2/ssh.pem

Finally, we'll set the region, availability zone, machine image (AMI) and EBS volume that we will want to attach. Again, go to the management console or use the command line utilities to generate an EBS volume. The EBS volume will store the backup. The AMI listed is a Debian Lenny base install from Alestic.

export REGION=eu-west-1
export ZONE=eu-west-1b
export AMI=ami-8398b3f7
export KEY_PAIR=ssh
export BACKUP_VOLUME=vol-xxxxxxxx

Step 2: start instance and get ip address

Now that we have set all our environment variables, the next steps are easy! We start 1 instance, with security group ssh and ask Amazon to install the keypair we created before in the ssh authorized_keys file so we can connect later on. The -g ssh corresponds to the security group and defines the firewall for the instance. You'll have to go into the management console and add a security group that allows ssh access from your home public ip address or wherever you are backup up from.

After giving the start command, we monitor the instance, waiting until it is up and running so we can determine its public ip address.

ec2-run-instances --region $REGION $AMI
-n 1 -g ssh -k $KEY_PAIR --availability-zone $ZONE
| grep INSTANCE | cut -f2)

while [ "$INSTANCE_RUNNING" != "running" ]; do
ec2-describe-instances--region $REGION $INSTANCE_ID
| grep INSTANCE | cut -f6)

ec2-describe-instances --region $REGION $INSTANCE_ID
| grep INSTANCE | cut -f17)

Step 3: attach and mount backup volume

Now that the instance is running and we know its ip, we should be able to connect to it. Unfortunately, sometimes the SSH server is not running yet if you script the above commands. I've introduced a minute of sleep to wait for the SSH server. We first have to attach the volume to the instance and assign it a name (sdf in this case).

You'll have to manually do all of this once, so you can create a partition and a filesystem on the newly attached 'sdf' virtual harddisk.

ec2-attach-volume --region $REGION $BACKUP_VOLUME \
-i $INSTANCE_ID -d sdf
sleep 60 # give it a while to start the ssh server
ssh -i $EC2_SSH_KEY root@$PUBLIC_IP \
"mkdir /backup && mount /dev/sdf1 /backup"

Step 4: run rsync

With the backup volume mounted, we now proceed to run rsync. The only non-standard option here is --rsh, because we have to tell it to use the private key that we created earlier to authenticate to the instance.

Be careful with the --delete option!

rsync -avhz --progress --delete --force --bwlimit=50 \
--rsh "ssh -i $EC2_SSH_KEY" \
/path/you/want/to/backup \

Step 5: unmount and detach backup volume

ssh -i $EC2_SSH_KEY root@$PUBLIC_IP \
"sync && df -h /dev/sdf1 && umount /backup"
sleep 5 # probably not necessary, just to be sure
ec2-detach-volume --region $REGION $BACKUP_VOLUME

Step 6: terminate instance


ec2-terminate-instances --region $REGION $INSTANCE_ID

Step 7: cleanup

SSH will add an entry to your known_hosts file for the instance. But because the instance is very short-lived, there is no point in keeping these entries. If we don't prune them, they will add up and pollute your known_hosts file. Luckily there is an easy fix:

ssh-keygen -R $PUBLIC_IP

This will remove the entries corresponding to the instance from the file and make sure it stays nice and clean.

Step 8: troubleshooting

Help! I'm getting host key errors from SSH! SSH wants you to confirm on connect that the key fingerprint of the server matches your expectations. You can (should) read the fingerprint from the console log of the instance (using ec2-get-console-output) but I haven't tried to make the script check the fingerprint. Instead, you can let ssh ignore host verification 'errors' by adding StrictHostKeyChecking no to /.ssh/config. I know it's not ideal, but by setting firewall rules to only allow traffic from your home ip and using ip addresses instead of dns names, I believe it is quite hard for someone to perform a Man-in-the-Middle attack without you finding out really quickly.

That's it! Stuff it in a weekly cron job, sit back and feel good about yourself!


So how safe is our data, assuming a weekly EC2 backup schedule? The chance of data loss equals the chance that our raid setup fails while our amazon backup is broken or the other way around. I'm not a risk analyst but I think I like my chances!

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