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Design Document

Project Goals

The main goal of zVault is to provide a backup solution that is both reliable and efficient.

Backups should be stored in a way so that they can be restored reliably. A backup that can not be restored is worthless. Backups should be stored in a robust fashion that allows minor changes to remote backup files or losses in local cache. There should be a way to verify the integrity of backups.

Backups should support remote storage. Remote backup files should be stored on a mounted remote storage (e.g. via rclone mount). To support this use case, remote backup files should be handled with only common file operations so that dumb remote filesystems can be supported.

The backup process should be fast, especially in the common case where only small changes happened since the last backup. This means that zVault should be able to find an existing backup for reference and use it to detect differences.

The backups should be stored in a space-efficient and deduplicating way, to save storage space, especially in the common case where only small changes happened since the last backup. The individual backups should be independent of each other to allow the removal of single backups based on age in a phase-out scheme.

Backup process

The main idea of zVault is to split the data into chunks which are stored remotely. The chunks are combined in bundles and compressed and encrypted as a whole to increase the compression ratio and performance.

An index stores hashes of all chunks together with their bundle id and position in that bundle, so that chunks are only stored once and can be reused by later backups. The index is implemented as a memory-mapped file to maximize the backup performance.

To split the data into chunks a so-called chunker is used. The main goal of the chunker is to create a maximal amount of same chunks when only a few changes happened in a file. This is especially tricky when bytes are inserted or deleted so that the rest of the data is shifted. The chunker uses content-dependent methods to split the data in order to handle those cases.

By splitting data into chunks and storing those chunks remotely as well as in the index, any stream of data (e.g. file contents) can be represented by a list of chunk identifiers. This method is used to represent the contents of a file and store it in the file metadata. This metadata is then encoded as a data stream and again represented as a chunk list. Directories contain their children (e.g. files and other directories) by referring to their metadata as a chunk list. So finally, the whole directory tree of a backup can be represented as the chunk list of the root directory which is then stored in a separate backup file.

Saving space

The design of zVault contains multiple ways in which storage space can be saved.

The most important is deduplication which makes sure that chunks are only stored once. If only few changes happened since the last backup, almost all chunks are already present in the index and do not have to be written to remote storage. Depending on how little data has changed since the last backup, this can save up to 100% of the storage space.

But deduplication also works within the same backup. Depending on data, deduplication can save about 10%-20% even on new data due to repetitions in the data.

If multiple systems use the same remote storage, they can benefit from backups of other machines and use their chunks for deduplication. This is especially helpful in the case of whole system backups where all systems use the same operating system.

Finally zVault uses a powerfull compression that achieves about 1/3 space reduction in common cases to store the bundles.

In total, a whole series of backups is often significantly smaller than the data contained in any of the individual backups.

Vacuum process

As backups are removed, some chunks become unused and could be removed to free storage space. However, as chunks are combined in bundles, they can not be removed individually and all other backups must also be checked in order to make sure the chunks are truly unused.

zVault provides an analysis method that scans all backups and identifies unused chunks in bundles. The vacuum process can then be used to reclaim the space used by those chunks by rewriting the effected bundles. Since all used chunks in the bundle need to be written into new bundles and the reclaimed space depends on the amount of unused chunks, only bundles with a high ratio of unused chunks should be rewritten.