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How To Use Rsync to Sync Local and Remote Directories on a VPS

PostedSeptember 10, 2013 1.8m views Linux Basics Backups


Rsync, which stands for "remote sync", is a remote and local file synchronization tool. It uses an algorithm that minimizes the amount of data copied by only moving the portions of files that have changed.

In this guide, we will cover the basic usage of this powerful utility. We will be using an Ubuntu 12.04 VPS in the examples, but you can use any modern Linux distribution to follow along.

What Is Rsync?

Rsync is a very flexible network-enabled syncing tool. It can also refer to the network protocol developed to utilize this tool. When we reference rsync in this guide, we are mainly referring to the utility, and not the protocol.

Due to its ubiquity on Linux and Unix-like systems and its popularity as a tool for system scripts, it is included on most Linux distributions by default.

Basic Syntax

The basic syntax of rsync is very straightforward, and operates in a way that is similar to ssh, scp, and cp.
We will create two test directories and some test files with the following commands:

    cd ~
    mkdir dir1
    mkdir dir2
    touch dir1/file{1..100}

We now have a directory called dir1 with 100 empty files in it.

    ls dir1
file1 file18 file27 file36 file45 file54 file63 file72 file81 file90 file10 file19 file28 file37 file46 file55 file64 file73 file82 file91 file100 file2 file29 file38 file47 file56 file65 file74 file83 file92 file11 file20 file3 file39 file48 file57 file66 file75 file84 file93 file12 file21 file30 file4 file49 file58 file67 file76 file85 file94 file13 file22 file31 file40 file5 file59 file68 file77 file86 file95 file14 file23 file32 file41 file50 file6 file69 file78 file87 file96 file15 file24 file33 file42 file51 file60 file7 file79 file88 file97 file16 file25 file34 file43 file52 file61 file70 file8 file89 file98 file17 file26 file35 file44 file53 file62 file71 file80 file9 file99

We also have an empty directory called dir2.

To sync the contents of dir1 to dir2 on the same system, type:

    rsync -r dir1/ dir2

The -r option means recursive, which is necessary for directory syncing.

We could also use the -a flag instead:

    rsync -a dir1/ dir2

The -a option is a combination flag. It stands for "archive" and syncs recursively and preserves symbolic links, special and device files, modification times, group, owner, and permissions. It is more commonly used than -r and is usually what you want to use.

An Important Note

You may have noticed that there is a trailing slash (/) at the end of the first argument in the above commands:

  • rsync -a dir1/ dir2

This is necessary to mean "the contents of dir1". The alternative, without the trailing slash, would place dir1, including the directory, within dir2. This would create a hierarchy that looks like:


Always double-check your arguments before executing an rsync command. Rsync provides a method for doing this by passing the -n or --dry-run options. The -v flag (for verbose) is also necessary to get the appropriate output:

rsync -anv dir1/ dir2
sending incremental file list ./ file1 file10 file100 file11 file12 file13 file14 file15 file16 file17 file18 . . .

Compare this output to the output we get when we remove the trailing slash:

rsync -anv dir1 dir2
sending incremental file list dir1/ dir1/file1 dir1/file10 dir1/file100 dir1/file11 dir1/file12 dir1/file13 dir1/file14 dir1/file15 dir1/file16 dir1/file17 dir1/file18 . . .

You can see here that the directory itself is transferred.

How To Use Rsync to Sync with a Remote System

Syncing to a remote system is trivial if you have SSH access to the remote machine and rsync installed on both sides. If you need to set up SSH keys, click here.

Once you have SSH access verified on between the two machines, you can sync the dir1 folder from earlier to a remote computer by using this syntax (note that we want to transfer the actual directory in this case, so we omit the trailing slash):

  • rsync -a ~/dir1 username@remote_host:destination_directory

This is called a "push" operation because it pushes a directory from the local system to a remote system. The opposite operation is "pull". It is used to sync a remote directory to the local system. If the dir1 were on the remote system instead of our local system, the syntax would be:

  • rsync -a username@remote_host:/home/username/dir1 place_to_sync_on_local_machine

Like cp and similar tools, the source is always the first argument, and the destination is always the second.

Useful Options for Rsync

Rsync provides many options for altering the default behavior of the utility. We have already discussed some of the more necessary flags.

If you are transferring files that have not already been compressed, like text files, you can reduce the network transfer by adding compression with the -z option:

  • rsync -az source destination

The -P flag is very helpful. It combines the flags --progress and --partial. The first of these gives you a progress bar for the transfers and the second allows you to resume interrupted transfers:

  • rsync -azP source destination
sending incremental file list ./ file1 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#1, to-check=99/101) file10 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#2, to-check=98/101) file100 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#3, to-check=97/101) file11 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#4, to-check=96/101) . . .

If we run the command again, we will get a shorter output, because no changes have been made. This illustrates rsync's ability to use modification times to determine if changes have been made.

  • rsync -azP source destination
sending incremental file list sent 818 bytes received 12 bytes 1660.00 bytes/sec total size is 0 speedup is 0.00

We can update the modification time on some of the files and see that rsync intelligently re-copies only the changed files:

  • touch dir1/file{1..10}
  • rsync -azP source destination
sending incremental file list file1 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#1, to-check=99/101) file10 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#2, to-check=98/101) file2 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#3, to-check=87/101) file3 0 100% 0.00kB/s 0:00:00 (xfer#4, to-check=76/101) . . .

In order to keep two directories truly in sync, it is necessary to delete files from the destination directory if they are removed from the source. By default, rsync does not delete anything from the destination directory.

We can change this behavior with the --delete option. Before using this option, use the --dry-run option and do testing to prevent data loss:

  • rsync -a --delete source destination

If you wish to exclude certain files or directories located inside a directory you are syncing, you can do so by specifying them in a comma-separated list following the --exclude= option:

  • rsync -a --exclude=pattern_to_exclude source destination

If we have specified a pattern to exclude, we can override that exclusion for files that match a different pattern by using the --include= option.

  • rsync -a --exclude=pattern_to_exclude --include=pattern_to_include source destination

Finally, rsync’s --backup option can be used to store backups of important files. It is used in conjunction with the --backup-dir option, which specifies the directory where the backup files should be stored.

  • rsync -a --delete --backup --backup-dir=/path/to/backups /path/to/source destination


Rsync can simplify file transfers over networked connections and add robustness to local directory syncing. The flexibility of rsync makes it a good option for many different file-level operations.

A mastery of rsync allows you to design complex backup operations and obtain fine-grained control over what is transferred and how.

By Justin Ellingwood


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