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Version 0.6 | Entry @ | See also: yastasotitagfarmshelf

ellsync is an opinionated poka-yoke for [rsync][].

  • opinionated: it was designed for a particular use case for rsync (offline backups).
  • poka-yoke: it exposes a restricted interface to rsync, which prevents using it in dangerous ways.

Because the restricted interface that ellsync presents can be accessed by shorthand form, it also happens to provide some convenience over using rsync directly — but its real purpose is to increase safety. (I've been burned more than once when I've made a mistake using rsync.)

Quick start

Make sure you have Python (2.7 or 3.x) installed, clone this repository, and put its bin directory on your executable search path. You will then be able to run ellsync from your terminal.

Usage guide

Backup router

ellsync's operation is based on a backup router which is a JSON file that looks like this:

    "art": {
        "from": "/media/user/External1/art/",
        "to": "/home/user/art/"

In this, art is the name of a backup stream, in which files in /media/user/External1/art/ (called the canonical) are periodically synced to /home/user/art/ (called the cache).

The idea is that all changes to the contents of the canonical directory are bona fide changes, but any change to the contents of the cache can be discarded.

sync command

With the above router saved as router.json we can then say

ellsync router.json sync art

and this will in effect run

rsync --archive --verbose --delete --dry-run /home/user/art/ /media/user/External1/art/

Note that by default it only runs a --dry-run. It's a good practice to do a dry run first, to see what will be changed. As a bonus, the files involved will often remain in the filesystem cache, meaning a subsequent actual run will go quite quickly. To do that actual run, use --apply:

ellsync router.json sync art --apply

Note that, since the contents of the canonical and the cache normally have the same directory structure, ellsync allows specifying that only a subdirectory of a stream is to be synced:

ellsync router.json sync art:painting/oil/ --apply

While rsync is sensitive about whether a directory name ends in a slash or not, ellsync detects when a trailing slash is missing and adds it. Thus

ellsync router.json sync art:painting/oil --apply

will work as well as the above. (But note that the directories specified in the router do need to have the trailing slashes.)

--thorough option

By default, rsync does not attempt to sync the contents of an existing file if the destination file has a same-or-newer timestamp as the source file.

However, this means that if the destination file has become corrupted (a not- uncommon occurrence on inexpensive removable media), rsync will not attempt to repair the corruption, as the timestamp of the corrupted file did not change.

To compensate for this, ellsync provides the --thorough option:

ellsync router.json sync art:painting/oil --thorough

This invokes rsync with the --checksum flag, to force it to do a thorough check of the files. See man rsync for more details.

--reverse option

This flag causes the meaning of the from and the to of the selected route to be flipped. However, to prevent this from being done accidentally (which could be catastrophic, file-backup-wise), this action must be confirmed by the user, and this confirmation takes the form of requiring that a file called .reverse-to-here must be present in the (non-usual) destination directory before the reverse sync takes place. In practice, the user runs touch destination/.reverse-to-here before running the reverse sync, and the reverse sync deletes the .reverse-to-here file as part of its operation.

verify command

This provides a more robust and flexible option than the --thorough option to sync for verifying that the contents on both sides of the stream are identical.

ellsync router.json verify art:painting

This creates a list of all files under /media/user/External1/art/painting/ in a text file in your temporary directory. It then goes through each file in that list and runs diff on it, comparing it to its corresponding file in /home/user/art/painting/. If there are any differences, the name of the file is printed out.

The reason the filenames are written to a text file is that for huge filesets, or on slow media (or both), verification of all files can take a long, long time. The user may wish to interrupt it before it is done, and continue it later. Persisting the list of files to a text file supports this. If the text file already exists, the user can supply the --continue-from option naming a file to continue the verification process from. All files up until that file in the existing text file will be skipped.

list command

Either the canonical or the cache (or both) may be offline storage (removable media), therefore neither directory is assumed to exist (it might not exist if the volume is not mounted.) If either of the directories does not exist, ellsync will refuse to use this backup stream. Based on this, there is a subcommand to list which streams are, at the moment, backupable:

ellsync router.json list

In practice, this command is often the command you run first, before running sync, as it will let you know what backup streams are available to sync.

rename command

Sometimes you want to rename a subdirectory somewhere under the canonical of one of the streams. It's completely fine to do this, but the next time it is synced, rsync will treat it, in the cache, as the old subdirectory being deleted and a new subdirectory being created. If there are a large number of files in the subdirectory, this delete-and-create sync can take a long time. It's also not obvious from rsync's logging output that everything being deleted is also being created somewhere else.

To ease this situation, ellsync has a rename command that works like so:

ellsync router.json rename art: sclupture sculpture

This renames the /media/user/External1/art/sclupture directory to /media/user/External1/art/sculpture and also renames the /home/user/art/sclupture directory to /home/user/art/sculpture. If the contents of the source and destination directories were in sync before this rename occurred, they will continue to be in sync after the rename happens.

Hints and Tips

You might have a router you use almost always, in which case you might want to establish an alias like

alias myellsync ellsync $HOME/my-standard-router.json

(or whatever.)


  • If rsync encounters an error, it will abort, having only partially completed. In particular, if it encounters a directory which it cannot read, because it is for example owned by another user and not world-readable, it will abort. ellsync does not currently detect this properly. It should be made to handle it gracefully, if possible.
  • (Aspirational) Ability to convert the backup router to a dot file (graphviz) so that the relationships between the streams can be easily visualized.



Added the verify subcommand.

Added the --reverse mode of operation to the sync subcommand.


The output of the list subcommand is now sorted by stream name.

The sync subcommand now supports multiple streams. Each stream will be synced in the order they are given on the command line. OS-level sync will only be performed once, at the very end.

A bash tab-completion script is included in the script directory. It enables tab-completion of both subcommand names, and stream names in the sync subcommand.

Internally, shell expansion is no longer used when executing system commands, and several new tests have been added to the test suite.


The : in a backup stream identifier is optional, when no subdirectory is being specified.


Argument parser was refactored to use subparsers, improving usage info and usage error output.

Removed syncdirs as it introduces some redundancy and I never use it.

After sync is performed, the system sync command is run, to ensure all buffers are flushed to devices before the ellsync tool actually exits.

The --thorough options now invokes rsync with --checksum flag, to cause it to thoroughly check if files differ, even if their datestamps have not changed.

Added --stream-name-only option to list command.


Every ellsync functionality has an explicit subcommand (list and sync to start.)

sync was split into sync (takes a stream) and syncdirs (takes to and from dirs).

Added rename command.


Initial release.