Borg backups

17th Mar 2020

Long overdue a proper backup setup, prompted by a housemate’s presentation on the topic, I decided to give Borg a bash.

Until know I’ve been periodically/sporadically backing up my home folder to an external harddrive with rsync:

rsync -r -t -v -p -t -E --progress --delete -l -H -s /home/doug/ /run/var/media/harddisk 

This is definitely better than copy-pasting, but 1) it is not encrypted, meaning anyone with access to the drive can read my data 2) it takes quite a lot of time 3) it gives only one monolithic backup, meaning I only have the option of reverting to the last backup.

Borg, a.k.a. ‘Borgbackup’ is a “Deduplicating archiver with compression and encryption”. It is the de facto successor of Attic since 2015, from which it was forked “to allow some different approaches to development, goals and policy”[ref] From a user perspective, it lets you make quick, space-efficient, password-protected backups.

For Debian/Ubuntu users, installing Borg is a simple sudo apt install borgbackup. Borg is a command line tool! For those not so keen on The Black Box, there is Vorta which provides a nice graphical user interface for Borg. However the Vorta team notes that it “is currently in beta-testing and shouldn’t be your only backup solution.” (2020-03-17) which put me off using it for now (although I know at least one person who is happily using it.) There is also Borgmatic which essentially allows borg via config files: although this provides some convenience, I couldn’t justify the additional complexity for my relatively modest requirements.

So to start with I’m just using plain Borg. There is some very nice documentation and even a couple of screencasts. The Quick start is as concise as I can imagine one could be, so I won’t repeat that here. Rather I’ll just go over a couple things that were of particular interest to me

Viewing backups via borg mount

After always having done unencrypted backups, where I could directly see the results, it’s important for me know I can really access the archive contents later. The simplest way to do so seems to be with borg mount .... If you’re backing up files which require root access there are some quirks:

Create a temporary mount directory…

mkdir /tmp/tempBorgMount

Mount the borg archive. Get the names of your archives with borg list .... Use the special :: to indicate a particular archive…

sudo borg mount /path/to/archives::a-particular-archive /tmp/tempBorgMount

View files by 1) navigating as root…

sudo su
cd /tmp/tempBorgMount

or 2) opening a file browser with root permission…

sudo nemo

The last two points threw me a bit, because when I tried to access the mount point with sudo I received sudo: cd: command not found. cd is not available for sudo, because if you need root privileges to access a folder, you continue to need it to view it’s contents!

Regular pruning

Pruning, like the horticultural act, is about removing unwanted bits. As time passes, you might be happy to get rid of more backups. borg prune ... allows you to do this programmatically. You can specify the number of backups you keep over a time interval with options --keep-weekly, --keep-monthly, etc. These options specify the number of copies to keep within that time period.

For example borg prune --keep-weekly 2 will remove all of the oldest backups which exceed 2 for a given week. If you made a backup every day for a week, then ran this command, it would prune Monday to Friday and keep just Saturday and Sunday. By combining daily, weekly, monthly and yearly options, you can have a nicely tapering set of backups, ensuring you always have enough space.


I don’t like remembering loads of commands :) Fortunately there is a nice borg script templated in the docs I made some modifications, such as excluding trash and downloads folders from being backed-up. I also didn’t include my password: I’ll still be ‘manually’ doing back ups for now, and don’t mind entering my password every time.