Backups made simple

Mar 7, 2021

I've made a backup system I can be proud of, and I'd like to share it with you today. It follows a philosophy I've been fleshing out called The Functional Infra. Concretely it aims to:

  • Be pure. An output should only be a function of its inputs.
  • Be declarative and reproducible. A by product of being pure.
  • Support rollbacks. Also a by product of being pure.
  • Surface actionable errors. The corollary being it should be easy to understand and observe what is happening.

At a high level, the backup system works like so:

  1. ZFS creates automatic snapshots every so often.
  2. Those snapshots are replicated to an EBS-backed EC2 instance that is only alive while backup replication is happening. Taking advantage of ZFS' incremental snapshot to make replication generally quite fast.
  3. The EBS drive itself stays around after the instance is terminated. This drive is a Cold HDD (sc1) which costs about $0.015 gb/month.


To be honest I haven't used ZFS all that much, but that's kind of my point. I, as a non-expert in ZFS, have been able to get a lot out of it just by following the straightforward documentation. It seems like the API is well thought out and the semantics are reasonable. For example, a consistent snapshot is as easy as doing zfs snapshot tank/home/marco@friday.

Automatic snapshots

On NixOS setting up automatic snapshots is a breeze, just add the following to your NixOS Configuration:

  services.zfs.autoSnapshot.enable = true;

and setting the com.sun:auto-snapshot option on the filesystem. E.g.: zfs set com.sun:auto-snapshot=true <pool>/<fs>. Note that this can also be done on creation of the filesystem: zfs create -o mountpoint=legacy -o com.sun:auto-snapshot=true tank/home.

With that enabled, ZFS will keep a snapshot for the latest 4 15-minute, 24 hourly, 7 daily, 4 weekly and 12 monthly snapshots.

On Demand EC2 Instance for Backups

Now that we've demonstrated how to setup snapshotting, we need to tackle the problem of replicating those snapshots somewhere so we can have real backups. For that I use one of my favorite little tools: lazyssh. Its humble description betrays little information at its true usefulness. The description is simply: A jump-host SSH server that starts machines on-demand. What it enables is pretty magical. It essentially lets you run arbitrary code when something SSHs through the jump-host.

Let's take the classic ZFS replication example from the docs: host1# zfs send tank/dana@snap1 | ssh host2 zfs recv newtank/dana. This command copies a snapshot from a machine named host1 to another machine named host2 over SSH. Simple and secure backups. But it relies on host2 being available. With lazyssh we can make host2 only exist when needed. host2 would start when the ssh command is invoked and terminated when the ssh command finishes. The command with lazyssh would look something like this (assuming you have a lazyssh target in your .ssh/config as explained in the docs):

host1# zfs send tank/dana@snap1 | ssh -J lazyssh host2 zfs recv newtank/dana

Note the only difference is the -J lazyssh.

So how do we actually setup lazyssh to do this? Here is my configuration:

Note there are a couple of setup steps:

  1. Create the initial sc1 EBS Drive. I did this in the AWS Console, but you could do this in Terraform or the AWS CLI.
  2. Create the ZFS pool on the drive. I launched my lazy archiver without the ZFS filesystem option and ran: zpool create -o ashift=12 -O mountpoint=none POOL_NAME /dev/DRIVE_LOCATION. Then I created the POOL_NAME/backup dataset with zfs create -o acltype=posixacl -o xattr=sa -o mountpoint=legacy POOL_NAME/backup.

As a quality of life and security improvement I setup homemanager to manage my SSH config and known_hosts file so these are automatically correct and properly setup. I generate the lines for known_hosts when I generate the host keys that go in the user_data field in the lazsyssh-config.hcl above. Here's the relevant section from my homemanager config:

  programs.ssh = {
    enable = true;

    # I keep this file tracked in Git alongside my NixOS configs.
    userKnownHostsFile = "/path/to/known_hosts";
    matchBlocks = {
      "archiver" = {
        user = "root";
        hostname = "archiver";
        proxyJump = "lazyssh";
        identityFile = "PATH_TO_AWS_KEYPAIR";

      "lazyssh" = {
        # This assume you are running lazyssh locally, but it can also
        # reference another machine.
        hostname = "localhost";
        port = 7922;
        user = "jump";
        identityFile = "PATH_TO_LAZYSSH_CLIENT_KEY";
        identitiesOnly = true;
        extraOptions = {
          "PreferredAuthentications" = "publickey";

Finally, I use the provided NixOS Module for lazyssh to manage starting it and keeping it up. Here's the relevant parts from my flake.nix:

  # My fork that supports placements and terminating instances after failing to
  # attach volume.
  inputs.lazyssh.url = "github:marcopolo/lazyssh/attach-volumes";
  inputs.lazyssh.inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "nixpkgs";

    outputs =
    { self
    , nixpkgs
    , lazyssh
    }: {
      nixosConfigurations = {

        nixMachineHostName = nixpkgs.lib.nixosSystem {
          system = "x86_64-linux";
          modules = [
                imports = [lazyssh.nixosModule]
                services.lazyssh.configFile =
                # You'll need to add the correct AWS credentials to `/home/lazyssh/.aws`
                # This could probably be a symlink with home-manager to a
                # managed file somewhere else, but I haven't go down that path
                # yet
                users.users.lazyssh = {
                  isNormalUser = true;
                  createHome = true;

With all that setup, I can ssh into the archiver by simple running ssh archiver. Under the hood, lazyssh starts the EC2 instance and attaches the EBS drive to it. And since ssh archiver works, so does the original example of: zfs send tank/dana@snap1 | ssh archiver zfs recv newtank/dana.

Automatic Replication

The next part of the puzzle is to have backups happen automatically. There are various tools you can use for this. Even a simple cron that runs the send/recv on a schedule. I opted to go for what NixOS supports out of the box, which is Unfortunately, I ran into a couple issues that led me to make a fork. Namely:

  1. Using /usr/bin/env - ssh fails to use the ssh config file. My fork supports specifying a custom ssh binary to use.
  2. Support for ExecStartPre. This is to "warm up" the archiver instance. I run nixos-rebuild switch which is basically a no-op if there is no changes to apply from the configuration file, or blocks until the changes have been applied. In my case these are usually the changes inside the UserData field.
  3. Support for ExecStopPost. This is to add observability to this process.
  4. I wanted to raise the systemd timeout limit. In case the ExecStartPre takes a while to warm-up the instance.

Thankfully with flakes, using my own fork was painless. Here's the relevant section from my flake.nix file:

  # inputs.zfs-replicate.url = "github:marcopolo/zfs-replicate/flake";
  # ...
  # Inside nixosSystem modules...
  ({ pkgs, ... }:
      imports = [ zfs-replicate.nixosModule ];
      # Disable the existing module
      disabledModules = [ "services/backup/zfs-replication.nix" ];

      services.zfs.autoReplication =
          host = "archiver";
          sshPath = "${pkgs.openssh}/bin/ssh";
          # Make sure the machine is up-to-date
          execStartPre = "${sshPath} ${host} nixos-rebuild switch";
          honeycombAPIKey = (import ./secrets.nix).honeycomb_api_key;
          honeycombCommand = pkgs.writeScriptBin "reportResult" ''
            #!/usr/bin/env ${pkgs.bash}/bin/bash
            ${pkgs.curl}/bin/curl -X POST \
              -H "X-Honeycomb-Team: ${honeycombAPIKey}" \
              -H "X-Honeycomb-Event-Time: $(${pkgs.coreutils}/bin/date -u +"%Y-%m-%dT%H:%M:%SZ")" \
              -d "{\"serviceResult\":\"$SERVICE_RESULT\", \"exitCode\": \"$EXIT_CODE\", \"exitStatus\": \"$EXIT_STATUS\"}"
          execStopPost = "${honeycombCommand}/bin/reportResult";
          inherit execStartPre execStopPost host sshPath;
          enable = true;
          timeout = 90000;
          username = "root";
          localFilesystem = "rpool/safe";
          remoteFilesystem = "rpool/backup";
          identityFilePath = "PATH_TO_AWS_KEY_PAIR";

That sets up a systemd service that runs after every snapshot. It also reports the result of the replication to Honeycomb, which brings us to our next section...


The crux of any automated process is it failing silently. This is especially bad in the context of backups, since you don't need them until you do. I solved this by reporting the result of the replication to Honeycomb after every run. It reports the $SERVICE_RESULT, $EXIT_CODE and $EXIT_STATUS as returned by systemd. I then create an alert that fires if there are no successful runs in the past hour.

Future Work

While I like this system for being simple, I think there is a bit more work in making it pure. For one, there should be no more than 1 manual step for setup, and 1 manual step for tear down. There should also be a similar simplicity in upgrading/downgrading storage space.

For reliability, the archiver instance should scrub its drive on a schedule. This isn't setup yet.

At $0.015 gb/month this is relatively cheap, but not the cheapest. According to filstats I could use Filecoin to store data for much less. There's no Block Device interface to this yet, so it wouldn't be as simple as ZFS send/recv. You'd lose the benefits of incremental snapshots. But it may be possible to build a block device interface on top. Maybe with an nbd-server?


Bits and pieces that may be helpful if you try setting something similar up.

Setting host key and Nix Configuration with UserData

NixOS on AWS has this undocumented nifty feature of setting the ssh host key and a new configuration.nix file straight from the UserData field. This lets you one, be sure that your SSH connection isn't being MITM, and two, configure the machine in a simple way. I use this feature to set the SSH host key and set the machine up with ZFS and the the lz4 compression package.

Questions? Comments?

Email me if you set this system up. This is purposely not a tutorial, so you may hit snags. If you think something could be clearer feel free to make an edit.