Full system backup with rsync

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This article is about using rsync to transfer a copy of your "/" tree, excluding a few select folders. This approach is considered to be better than disk cloning with dd since it allows for a different size, partition table and filesystem to be used, and better than copying with cp -a as well, because it allows greater control over file permissions, attributes, Access Control Lists (ACLs) and extended attributes. [1]

Either method will work even while the system is running. Since it's going to take a while, you may freely browse the web during this time. Worst case scenario you won't get the same opened tabs when you restore the backup (or boot from it) because they weren't saved. Not a big deal.

With a single command

As root, run:

Note: If you plan on backing up your system somewhere other than /mnt or /media, don't forget to add it to the list, to avoid an infinite loop.
# rsync -aAXv /* /path/to/backup/folder --exclude={/dev/*,/proc/*,/sys/*,/tmp/*,/run/*,/mnt/*,/media/*,/lost+found,/home/*/.gvfs}

For information on why these folders were excluded, read the next section.

Using a script

Same as in the above method, the system files are transferred in archive mode, ensuring that symbolic links, devices, permissions and ownerships, among other file attributes are preserved, while excluding files that match the patterns from the --exclude string. On top of that, it shows at the end how much time it took, and it also writes a blank file stating when the backup was created. To learn more about what this script does, read man rsync and man date.

Note: Again, if you plan on backing up your system somewhere other than /mnt or /media, don't forget to add it to the list, to avoid an infinite loop.
$ cd ~/Scripts
$ nano backup.sh

START=$(date +%s)
rsync -aAXv /* $1 --exclude={/dev/*,/proc/*,/sys/*,/tmp/*,/run/*,/mnt/*,/media/*,/lost+found,/home/*/.gvfs,/var/lib/pacman/sync/*}
FINISH=$(date +%s)
echo "total time: $(( ($FINISH-$START) / 60 )) minutes, $(( ($FINISH-$START) % 60 )) seconds"

touch $1/"Backup from $(date '+%A, %d %B %Y, %T')"
$ chmod +x backup.sh
Note: The contents of /dev, /proc, /sys, /tmp, /run were excluded because they are populated at boot (while the folders themselves are not created), /lost+found is filesystem-specific, and /home/*/.gvfs should be added too, so that it won't complain at the end that "some files/attrs were not transferred". For Arch Linux, /var/lib/pacman/sync/* can also be excluded. This can save a lot of time on every backup since the directory contains many small files that tend to change quite often. These are description files for every package from the repositories and can be re-generated with pacman -Syu. Additionally, you may also want to skip /home/*/.thumbnails/*, /home/*/.mozilla/firefox/*.default/Cache/* and /home/*/.cache/chromium/*.

Backing up is easy.

While the system is running, open up a terminal and run (as root):

# ~/Scripts/backup.sh /some/destination

You can also replace both $1 instances from the script with the actual destination path, move it to one of the folders from echo $PATH, and then simply run (as root):

# backup.sh

Boot requirements

Having a bootable backup can be useful in case the filesystem becomes corrupt or if an update breaks the system. The backup can also be used as a test bed for updates, with the [testing] repo enabled, etc. If you transferred the system to a different partition or drive and you want to boot it, the process is as simple as updating the backup's /etc/fstab and your bootloader's configuration file.

Update the fstab

Without rebooting, edit the backup's fstab to reflect the changes:

# nano /path/to/backup/etc/fstab
tmpfs        /tmp          tmpfs     nodev,nosuid             0   0

/dev/sda1    /boot         ext2      defaults                 0   2
/dev/sda5    none          swap      defaults                 0   0
/dev/sda6    /             ext4      defaults                 0   1
/dev/sda7    /home         ext4      defaults                 0   2

Because rsync has performed a recursive copy of the entire root filesystem, all of the sda mountpoints are problematic and booting the backup will fail. In this example, all of the offending entries are replaced with a single one:

# nano /path/to/backup/etc/fstab
tmpfs        /tmp          tmpfs     nodev,nosuid             0   0

/dev/sdb1    /             ext4      defaults                 0   1

Remember to use the proper device name and filesystem type.

Update the bootloader's configuration file

This section assumes that you backed up the system to another drive or partition, that your current bootloader is working fine, and that you want to boot from the backup as well.

For Syslinux, all you need to do is duplicate the current entry, except pointing to a different drive or partition:

Tip: Instead of editing syslinux.cfg, you can also temporarily edit the menu during boot. When the menu shows up, press the Template:Keypress key and change the relevant entries. Partitions are counted from one, drives are counted from zero.
# nano /boot/syslinux/syslinux.cfg

For GRUB, it's recommended that you automatically re-generate the grub.cfg file:

# pacman -S os-prober
# grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg