dd is not a backup tool!

Pretty much all Linux newbies will at some point be dazzled by the amazing powers of dd, and consider using it for backups. DON’T! Allow me to elaborate:

  1. dd must be run on an unmounted device. The point of using dd is usually to get a snapshot, but it’s not a snapshot if the system keeps running and modifying the FS while it’s being copied! The “snapshot” will be a random collection of all the states that the data and metadata were in during the 30+ minutes it took to copy.
  2. It’s hard to restore on a file by file basis. You hardly ever want to restore everything, usually you just want one file or directory that was accidentally deleted, or all files except the ones you’ve been working on since the backup was taken.
  3. It’s hard to restore to new hardware. If you suffer a massive disk crash, you will indeed want to restore everything. If you’re restoring to the same size disk, and you don’t decide that you want less swap or a bigger root partition while you’re at it, you can now easily restore and thank the gods that most FS don’t rely on disk geometry anymore. If you try to restore to a smaller disk on a secondary/old computer, you’re just screwed. If you upgrade to a larger disk (by far the most likely scenario), you’ll be playing the partition shuffle for a while to get use of the new space.
  4. It’s highly system dependent, and requires root to extract files. You can’t use your mum’s Wintendo or even your school’s Linux boxes to get out that geography report. And if you’re sick of Linux after it botched your system, you can’t switch to FreeBSD or OSX.
  5. You can’t do incremental backups. You can’t properly back up just the information that has changed. This all but kills network backups, and dramatically reduces the number of snapshots you can keep.

So when is dd a decent choice for backups?

Take a snapshot of a new laptop that doesn’t come with restoration disks, so that you can restore it if you sell the laptop to a non-geek or if the laptop needs servicing (it’ll make life easier for clueless techies, and companies have been known to use Linux as an excuse for not covering hardware repairs).

Create a disk image right before you try something major that you want to be able to reverse, such as upgrading to the latest Ubuntu beta to see if the new video driver works better with your card. Or right before installing Puppy Linux to write a little review about it. Restoring the image will be easier than downgrading/reinstalling, and you won’t have done any work in the mean time.

Image a computer and teach the kids how to install an operating system in a realistic scenario.

Leave a Reply