The "Three Rs" of Backups

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The help article will walk UberStudent users through a very simple but highly effective method for doing backups with the platform.

The necessity of backups for someone doing academic work should be self-evident. Please don't learn the necessity of backups the hard way. i.e., after all data is gone and you have no time to recreate it in the middle of a semester.

We will below talk about "The Three 'Rs' of Doing Backups."


"Three Rs"

It sounds a bit cheesy, but it is very helpful if one thinks of the "three Rs" of doing backups. The most effective backups are:

  1. Regular - done on a real-time or regular basis
  2. Redundant - done in more than one place, in case one of them fails
  3. Ready - available to you immediately, regardless of platform, computer, location, or Internet connection

The method explained here for doing backups follows these "three Rs", because it

  • Is cross-platform - it will work on any computing platform, whether Linux, Mac, or Windows
  • Uses:
  • Dropbox - for offsite, cloud-based backup
  • FreeFileSync - for backup to a local, external drive
  • A task scheduler - a type of small program available on all platforms:

Dropbox, FreeFileSync, and gnome-schedule are pre-installed in UberStudent. Automater is pre-installed in Mac OS-X Lion, and Task Scheduler is pre-installed in all versions of Windows since at least 2000.

Note: gnome-schedule is located in the UberStudent Applications menu at System > Administration > Scheduled Tasks.

Physical Materials Needed

In addition to the above software, you will need

  1. A high quality external drive.
  2. A USB 2.0 port on your computer. If your computer does not have this, it's probably time to buy a new computer; or, you can get a card for around U.S. $20.

External drive advice

  • Any Windows compatible drive should work fine in both Linux and Mac. NewEgg is a great place to purchase one. Read some reviews there before making your purchase.
  • Format your drive as FAT32. It's not the best file system ever invented, but it's supported by Linux, Mac, and Windows, and portability across platforms is key when doing backups. See formatting external drives for a brief how-to.
  • For academic work, you should strongly prefer an external harddrive at least 250 gigabytes in size (it's hard to find them much smaller than that). A 10 GB USB thumb style drive should probably be the minimum size.
  • A drive that connects via USB 2.0 is your only choice, since you want to be able to just plug your drive in to nearly any machine anywhere and have it read.
  • Keep in mind that small external harddrives will break if dropped, and USB-drives are easy to lose. A great place to keep an external drive is in your padded laptop case. Handle it like a carton of eggs. For USB thumb style drives, your key ring or around your neck are great places to keep one.
  • Replace your external drive once each year. Don't wait for it to actually break! I cannot over stress that point.


Remember, backups need to be redundant. You need to use at least two different backup methods concurrently. We'll, first, cover offsite cloud backups with Dropbox; second, move on to doing local drive backups with FreeFileSync; and, finally, talk briefly about using Zotero to supplement the backup of your Zotero database.

Dropbox - Offsite Backup

Dropbox is preinstalled in UberStudent 3.0 and above. Whichever files you place in to your Dropbox account's folder are synced in real time to each of your computers with Dropbox installed to work with your Dropbox account. The steps to get going with Dropbox are

1. Run Dropbox from the Applications menu.

2. Install the proprietary daemon

3. Create or import a Dropbox account

4. Choose the Typical setup

5. Click "Finish" and the Dropbox folder will open

6. Make symbolic links in the Dropbox folder

This final step will make it so you can use your normal home file system in UberStudent and have it backed up by Dropbox. You'd otherwise have to place all of your files in to your single Dropbox folder, which most people find very annoying. To acomplish this, we're going to use the command line to make symbolic links from inside your Dropbox folder to important folders in your home directory, including your Anki decks, Thunderbird email, and Zotero database, the latter two which are hidden folders.

A. Toggle the showing of hidden files:


B. Hit F12 on your keyboard to call Guake terminal and copy and paste the following text in to it and hit Enter on your keyboard.

ln -s $HOME/Anki $HOME/Dropbox
ln -s $HOME/Documents $HOME/Dropbox
ln -s $HOME/Research $HOME/Dropbox
ln -s $HOME/.mozilla $HOME/Dropbox
ln -s $HOME/.thunderbird $HOME/Dropbox
ln -s $HOME/.zotero $HOME/Dropbox

The result will be:


You can, of course, tailor which folders are linked to inside your Dropbox folder by following the same syntax as above. For example, an art student might wish to back up his or her Pictures folder. In that case, the command would be

ln -s $HOME/Pictures $HOME/Dropbox

For full documentation on the ln command, open a terminal and type in and run the following:

man ln

man is the command for manual.

FreeFileSync - Local Backup

You now have the off-site backup part of your regimen taken care. Now we will deal with the local part by using FreeFileSync. You will find it in the same menu you found Dropbox.

The steps are:

1. Select your locations

When you run the program, you will see a dialog with prominent left and right sides at the top. On the left, simply select your Dropbox folder (remember, we want our backups to be redundant). On the right, select your external local drive, e.g., USB-drive, external harddrive, etc.


2. Configure to follow symbolic links

This step is crucial! If you fail to do this, FreeFileSync will ignore the symbolic links you earlier made in your Dropbox folder, leaving them not backed up.

A. Go in to settings (click the blue gear)


B. Set to follow symbolic links


3. Click "Compare"

This step tells the program what it will have to do to sync your files.


4. Select synchronization settings

I strongly recommend you select "Two-way." When you do this, the program detects changes on either the left or right and copies over the most recent. This is especially important if you edit files directly from your local USB external drive. If you fail to do this, the changes you made while working directly from the external drive will be overwritten. For the "On completion" option, choose "Close progress dialog" (the other options are only appropriate for backing up very large drives that take hours to complete). Also, under "Deletion handling," choose "Versioning" if you have a large external harddrive (recommended), or else "Recycle Bin" if you're working from only a USB thumb style drive.



5. Do an initial synchronization of your files.


Automate FreeFileSync

We now need to automate FreeFileSync. This is a very important step. We want your local backups to occur regularly without you having to intervene each time. We will first save your FreeFileSync configurations as a batch job, and then use gnome-schedule (Task Scheduler) to run the batch job at regular intervals. These steps explain.

1. "Save as batch job..."

In FreeFileSync save your backup settings as a batch file as shown. I suggest you save the .ffs_batch file directly in to your Dropbox folder.


2. Set a Recurrent Task in gnome-schedule

From the UberStudent Applications menu open gnome-schedule ("Scheduled tasks") and set a recurring task, as shown below.



At the dailog that appears, as shown below, do the following:

A. Fill in "Description." Give it any description you wish.

B. Fill in "Command." It is crucial that it be exactly correct. The command must be in the following form:

FreeFileSync "/home/uberstudent/Dropbox/my-ffs-backup-config.ffs_batch"
Note that the "uberstudent" part in the file path /home/uberstudent/Dropbox will differ on your machine. For example, if your username is bobsmith, the path will be /home/bobsmith/Dropbox
Note that the my-ffs-backup-config.ffs_batch may differ. Give your .ffs_batch file any name you wish.

C. Under "Command," select X application. "X" means, essentially, a desktop application.

D. Under Time & Date, tick "Advanced," and then "Edit."


E. Tick "in a step width." I suggest you have it run every 10 minutes, or more or less often than that per your needs.



F. Close out of gnome-schedule. It will continue to run in the background.

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