How to backup a server with rsync via ssh login without password

Rsync is a fast and extraordinarily versatile file copying tool.  It can copy locally, to/from another host over any remote shell, or to/from a remote rsync daemon.
It offers a large number of options that control every aspect of its behavior and permit very flexible specification of the set of files to be copied.  It is famous for  its  delta-transfer algorithm, which reduces the amount of data sent over the network by sending only the differences between the source files and the existing files in the destination.  Rsync is widely used for backups and mirroring and as an improved copy command for everyday use.
Rsync finds files that need to be transferred using a "quick check" algorithm (by default) that looks for files that have changed in size or in last-modified  time.
Any  changes  in  the  other preserved attributes (as requested by options) are made on the destination file directly when the quick check indicates that the file's data does not need to be updated.

I will show shortly how to:

  • backup your files from remote to local using rsync
  • use modules to have multiple backups possible
  • secure the connection with ssh
  • avoid to prompt for the password, so that your backup can be done via script/cronjob

Before we start, I'll call "local" the computer where the files have to be copied and "remote" the computer where those files are stored and where you have to listen for ssh connections.

Remote host

To secure our data, we'll use rsync via a remote ssh connection, so there's no need to start rsync as a daemon, but sshd must be configured to accept connections without password and rsa-key authentication must be enabled in your /etc/ssh/sshd_config file:

AllowUsers ssh-user
RSAAuthentication yes

Here "ssh-user" is the only user who is allowed to connect via ssh. If the backup copy has to be done from a mirror web server, it is not secure to store anywhere an ssh-rsa key which enables a connection as root; this is the reason why we are going to do the connection with an unpriviledged user "ssh-user".

So "ssh-user" will be used at the ssh level and should not be confused with "rsync-user", which will be used to log-in to the rsync "module", site1 in the following example.

Log-in as "ssh-user" and create the config file ~/rsync.conf. Be aware that the rsync process started by the ssh shell, if run by a user other than root, expects the config file in the home directory of the ssh user.

# common stuff
motd file = /etc/rsyncd_motd
# the following in case you want to test rsync as daemon
log file = /var/log/rsyncd.log
pid file = /var/run/
lock file = /var/run/rsyncd.lock

       # this is the path of the files to backup
       path = /home/ssh-user/path/where/site1/files/live
       comment = site1 files
       uid = ssh-user
       gid = apache
       read only = yes
       list = yes
       auth users = rsync-user
       secrets file = /home/ssh-user/rsyncd.scrt
       # we don't have super user access
       use chroot = false

       [....site2 stuff....]

uid and gid are the userID and the groupID under which file transfers will take place.

Before the transfer will start you have to authenticate rsync with "auth user". Create the secret file ~/rsync.scrt which holds the user:password couples:


Remove the 'r' flag to other users:

chmod o-r ~/rsync.scrt

Local host

Since we want to backup our files by means of a script and a cronjob, it's important that the remote ssh connection will not prompt for any password. We can do this exchanging a ssh-key between client and server.

Create the private and public key:

root@localhost:~# ssh-keygen
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/root/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost): 
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): 
Enter same passphrase again: 
Your identification has been saved in /root/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost.
Your public key has been saved in /root/.ssh/
The key fingerprint is:
a0:53:33:c5:d1:ea:4c:e2:a1:98:d9:ba:b0:e8:5f:90 root@localhost
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
|    o++o         |
|     o. .        |
|    . ..         |
|    .oo.         |
|   E.O .S        |
|    * *          |
|.  . o .         |
|.o. . .          |
|+.oo             |

Now copy the public key to the remote server. ssh-copy is a program which will do the connection and will append the key to ~/.ssh/authorized_keys of the root user, but in our case we have to append to the file


because the connection will be done by "ssh-user" and not by root, as explained earlier.

Now test that the connection is allowed with no password:

root@localhost:~# ssh -p 12345 -l ssh-user -i /root/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost <remote-host>
Last login: Mon Sep  2 16:04:57 2013 from localhost

Now we are ready to create our backup shell-script as /usr/local/bin/


/usr/bin/rsync \
        -avz --exclude "*~" --delete-after \
        -e "ssh -p 12345 -l ssh-user -i /root/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost" \
        --password-file /root/remoteHost_rsync_pwd \
        rsync-user1@<remote-host>::site1 \

Remember to give the flag +x  to that file:

chmod +x /usr/local/bin/

The password file /root/remoteHost_rsync_pwd holds the password of the rsync connection; in this way our shell-script will not receive a password prompt when it connects. It should be stored in a safe place and priviledges must be given only to the root user. It will contain just the password string.

Maybe the line

-avz --exclude "*~" \

deserves some description, but you are invited to refer to the man page for more details.

  • --exclude "*~" is to avoid the copy of backup file of my text editor
  • "-a" stands for -rlptgoD and preserves everything
  • "-r" means recursive mode while traversing directories
  • "-p", "-o", and "-g" preserve the permissions, owner and group information of files and directories to be copied
  • "-t" preserves the file and directory timestamps
  • "-l" preserves the symbolic links
  • "-D" preserves devices and special files
  • "-v" turns on verbosity in output
  • "-z" enables compression

The quickest way to do a connection to the remote Host

You can have a quick connection to the remote Host if you setup a ~/.ssh/config file as follow

Host <remoteHostLabel>
HostName <remoteHost>
User root
Port 12345
IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost

and connecting as

> ssh <remoteHostLabel>
Enter passphrase for key '/home/<ssh-user>/.ssh/id_rsa_remoteHost':
Last login: Mon Sep  2 16:04:57 2013 from localhost

At this point it is convenient to disable root remote access setting /etc/ssh/sshd_config as follow:

PermitRootLogin without-password
AllowUsers root <ssh-user>
PubkeyAuthentication yes