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Exploring Linux – Part 18

by Alan German

These days I am almost Windows-free, as I use Linux for almost all of my computing needs. Nevertheless, there are still some tasks for which I still resort to Windows, and these are mainly related to making backups.

Typically I make full image backups of my hard drive using Acronis True Image and, while the rescue CD runs in a Linux environment, and could be used to create backups, I still find it convenient to boot into Windows and use the hard-disk version of the program.

Similarly, even though I now routinely run inosync to provide a real-time backup of my data partition (
Exploring Linux – Part 16), I still like making intermediate backups of certain file folders, and even of the entire data partition, on my hard drive. For these tasks I was using PC Magazine's wonderful (but, regrettably no longer free) WMatch utility program, and Microsoft's free SyncToy utility, respectively.

But, there are equivalent Linux programs available for the latter. It's just that I haven't got around to trying any of them. Well, at least, I hadn't until now!

I decided to start small and look for a utility that would make a backup of a file folder on the hard disk to a USB memory stick. Yes, I know that earlier (
Exploring Linux – Part 9), I said you could do this with rsync, but this is a command line program, and even using a bash script file doesn't make the process all that user friendly.

A lot of chat on the web suggests using Unison, an open-source utility that includes a graphical user interface; however, use of this package isn't straightforward as it seems to require some considerable tweaking of file permissions before it will successfully create backups.

Then, I came across FreeFileSync on SourceForge touted as “ open-source folder comparison and synchronization tool... optimized for highest performance and usability without restricted or overloaded UI interfaces.” This sounds perfect for my purpose!

FreeFileSync comes in both Linux and Windows flavours, but take care which operating system you are running when you go to download the package. The choices offered are those for your current OS so, if you want a Linux version, download it on your Linux box.

The download arrives as a .tar.gz file, meaning that it is a compressed tar archive – a Tape ARchive or tarball – compressed using the GNU zip (Gzip) protocol. I researched how to unpack the tarball and expected to have to use the terminal command: tar -zxvf FreeFileSync_v3.9_Ubuntu_10.4.tar.gz, where the switch z filters the file through gzip, x indicates that the files in the archive are to be extracted, v produces a verbose listing of the extracted files, and f indicates that the archive file name is provided.

But, then I found a much easier way to achieve the same result. Simply double-clicking on the .tar.gz file in Ubuntu brings up the File Roller archive manager, complete with an Extract button! I created a FreeFileSync folder and extracted the files from the archive. Included amongst these was a file named FreeFileSync. This is the executable version of the utility.

Double-clicking on this file brought up the program. Now, it was simply a matter of selecting the source folder on my hard disk, and the target folder on my USB memory key, by browsing both drives, and pressing the Compare button.

Well, maybe it wasn't quite that simple. To my mind, the browse function is enabled a little clumsily. Simply clicking on the browse button only gives a list of places on the system that are already specified. I found that I needed to select Browse – Other in order to open up a tree directory from which I could readily select any particular drive and folder of interest. Not terribly intuitive!



The directory comparison only lists files that are different between the source and the target. In the case shown, the text file for the current article, and an associated screenshot, have not yet been backed up to the USB drive. To do so, all that is required is to press the Synchronize button.

Note (in the text displayed just above the synchronize and compare buttons) that the program has been configured to “mirror” the source files on the target drive, with files being compared based on their date-time stamps. Any new files in the source folder will be copied to the target, any updated files will be overwritten in the target folder, and any files deleted from the source folder will be removed from the target. This ensures that the target folder is maintained as an exact copy of the source folder.

While these are my preferences for a backup system, the program is configurable using the two cog-wheel type buttons. File comparison may be made by date and time, or by file content. Synchronization can be set to be two-way, mirrored, updated (no target deletions), or even customized to the user's preferences. Deleted files can be sent to the trash, to a folder of the user's choice, or erased immediately. The Advanced menu option allows considerable further configuration of the program, including language selection, and a global setting to ignore one-hour time differences (daylight savings) on files.

The Help menu is relatively brief, but very informative. The basic program operations are clearly described with the use of coloured illustrations. More complex tasks to be undertaken by the advanced or specialized user are explained in some detail.

One final idiosyncrasy of the program worth mentioning is that, while the program ran fine on my Ubuntu 10.04 test bed, it refused to run at all on my Ubuntu 8.04 LTS production machine. The workaround for the latter turned out to be truly bizarre – download the Windows version of FreeFileSync – and install and run this version of the program under Wine! However, the good news is that, for this setup, the browse function leads directly to a tree directory, and successful completion of a folder synchronization is terminated with a pleasant musical trill from the system speaker.

Personally, having used WMatch for many years, I find the lack of a list of “all files” a little disconcerting, but perhaps I can assure myself that the end product is indeed a true backup copy, and so a display of only the new and/or changed files is all that is really necessary. Time – and additional use of FreeFileSync under Linux - will tell!

Bottom Line:

FreeFileSync (Open Source)

Originally published: September, 2011

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