There’s no doubt that Apple’s Time Machine made backups mainstream. Before Time Machine, the average user avoided backups like the plague – the procedure seemed too convoluted, and it also wasted precious storage space.
With Time Machine, Apple changed people’s mindset, mostly thanks to its simplicity: add an external HDD to your computer and your files – and OS – will be forever safe. One click and you’ll be back before catastrophe struck.
That’s when other backup solutions took notice of this approach and decided they, too, should prioritize simplicity. Today you can find some of the best of them on Linux – they even come as standard in many distributions! Only a select few are as simple to use as Apple’s Time Machine, though.
What follows is a small selection of some of the most popular ones that, like Time Machine, excel at allowing you to take snapshots of your data where you’ll be able to “return” later and even fully automate the procedure.
1. Déjà Dup
Déjà Dup is one of the most straightforward backup solutions available and is best for keeping automated backups of your personal files. If it’s not already installed on your distribution and you’re using an Ubuntu/Debian based variant, you can grab it from the Software Center or by firing up a terminal and entering:
You can set Déjà Dup to back up your precious files in a simple 1-2-3 approach. It has built-in encryption and takes incremental backups allowing you to jump back to a specific point in time and compresses them to save space. You don’t have to tweak any options for those features. Déjà Dup can store its backups locally on a remote share or a cloud service. Or thanks to its integration with it, anywhere Nautilus has access.
Unfortunately, Déjà Dup’s simplicity is also its primary weakness. There are no advanced scheduling options and only simple presets like “daily” and “monthly.” It’s neither the simplest nor the most complete of the bunch. This doesn’t mean it isn’t a good alternative or worth your time. Only that, as it is, Déjà Dup doesn’t excel in anything. And it’s a shame because, with a somewhat better-designed wizard or by offering more options, the pendulum could swing either way, helping it rise to the top.
The closest any program has gotten to entirely cloning Time Machine’s functionality and, up to a point, looks, Cronopete is also “annoying” in that you probably won’t find it in most software centers. Instead, you must download a package file from its author’s site manually. That’s not really a problem, but in cases like Cronopete, every negative counts – because there are so very few of them!
Setting up Cronopete is an ultra-simple affair:
1. Choose if it will store the backups in a folder or an external hard disk.
2. Select the actual backup destination. (The external hard disk is the default and preferred method.)
3. Specify which folders it will back up.
4. Optional: toggle the option to show its icon on the menu bar.
5. Enable backups.
Like Deja Dup, unfortunately, that’s also the problem: the “that’s it” part of the equation. Striving to be as simple as Time Machine, Cronopete lacks options like detailed scheduling or storage limit setup. There are no options on how many backups it will keep or how much they should take up. You can only include and exclude folders from its backups and set a time interval (in hours) between backups.
Restoring the backups is even easier: you can navigate in a timeline of overlapping folders that show the contents of each backup and, with one click, go back to any point in time.
Cronopete aims to be a direct clone of Time Machine for Linux, and it succeeds in that regard. It feels like a wasted opportunity, though – striving for simplicity means lacking basic options that are a given in other backup applications.
3. Back in Time
Cronopete and Deja Dup might feel too restrictive in their simplicity. Other backup solutions are the opposite: they offer a myriad of options the average user would find useless.
Back in Time is a nice middle ground. It can be as simple to use as Cronopete and Deja Dup, if you ignore its settings – the default values are more than okay for average users. Apart from choosing a destination and which folders to back up, you can leave the rest of them as they are and start using the app or make sure scheduling is enabled and forget about it.
To install it on distributions compatible with Ubuntu and Mint, use:
If you do tweak its options, Back in Time allows you to set when to take new snapshots based on a range of pre-defined values – ranging from “every 5 minutes” to “When drive gets connected (udev)” – or set your own custom hours. You can restrict the number of snapshots it keeps per day, week, month or year. You can choose when it will delete old snapshots based on how much free space is left. If you’re on a laptop or older PC, you can set whether the program will pause while on battery power and only take one snapshot at a time to avoid overloading your CPU. It can also make full system backups, allowing you to restore your full OS to an earlier point – although we admit we didn’t test this functionality.
You can also use it “manually” by starting a backup procedure with the click of a button. Going back to a previous backup is only a matter of selecting and restoring it.
The availability of more options makes Back in Time look more complicated than it is, since it doesn’t hide them. Its interface is closer to a typical backup program, includes a file manager, and might look alien to whomever was expecting a Time Machine clone.
Also worth noting is that its support for full-system backups is restricted in that they can only be restored to the same physical disks with the same partition structure. This means it’s great for restoring your system to your existing hardware but not if what you want is to back up everything before a hard disk upgrade.
Timeshift is powerful yet ridiculously simple to use. You can install it on Ubuntu and compatible distributions through its official repository:
Timeshift guides you through all its options by presenting them as an easy-to-follow wizard. You select where the backups will be stored, their frequency, the directories they’ll include, and you’re set. You can wait for Timeshift to do its deed or manually start a backup process by clicking “Create.”
Restoring a backup is just as easy: click “Restore,” select the snapshot, and you’re done. If it’s a full OS snapshot, a reboot will be required for the completion of the process. We should note that, with Timeshift, we tried a full backup and restore of a clean, new Linux Mint installation and didn’t meet with any problems.
We are sorry that we didn’t get the chance to check out its support for BTRFS since we didn’t have an OS installed on an HDD with this format. And we’re sorry because we would like to see in action how Timeshift takes advantage of BTRFS’s built-in features. This allows for instant creation and restoration of backups that are perfect, byte-for-byte copies of the system.
The problem with this approach is that it works wonders only for going back to a previous state since the BTRFS snapshots are stored on the same volume. If that hard disk fails, both the original content and the backups are gone. This means that the BTRFS option ends up having a different purpose than typical backups. If you want your files backed up, with the term meaning stored in a different storage medium for extra safety, then you must also set up a secondary backup process for that. Thankfully, Timeshift can do that, too, so there is no need to look elsewhere for that.
The above are a tiny subset of all the backup solutions available in the Open Source realm. Still, they’re among the protagonists, primarily for their ease-of-use and user-centric approach. If need be, you can use more complicated solutions that are also optimal for backing up many computers on a network to a central server or for remote management of backups, support for other operating systems, options for cloning partitions and much more. The vast majority of users, though, will be fine with one of the above four that range from the ultra-simple “click here to back up” approach of Cronopete to the detailed options of Back In Time.