Recently I had a drive that was showing the early warning signs of failure. So I decided I had better make a backup copy of the drive. And then subsequently push that image onto another drive to avoid failure. Consequently I found that the drive was fine. It was the SATA cable that was failing. But the process helped remind me of what a useful tool dd is. Subsequently it refreshed my knowledge of how to use this remarkable tool. And finally helped remind me how to make a full disk backup with dd.
What is DD?
DD stands for “Data Definition”, it has been around since about 1974. It can be used to read write and convert data between filesystems, folders and other block level devices. As a result dd can be used effectively for copying the content of a partition, obtaining a fixed amount of random data from /dev/random, or performing a byte order transformation on data.
So Lets Make a Full Disk Backup with DD
I will start with the command I used to make a full disk backup with dd. And then give you a breakdown of the different command elements to help you understand what it is doing.
dd if=/dev/sdc conv=sync,noerror status=progress bs=64K | gzip -c > backup_image.img.gz
The command options break down like this:
if=/dev/sdc this defines the “input file” which in this case is the full drive “/dev/sdc”. You could do the same with a single partition like “/dev/sdc1”, but I want all the partitions on the drive stored in the same image.
conv=sync,noerror the “sync” part tells dd to pad each block with nulls, so that if there is an error and the full block cannot be read the original data will be preserved. The “noerror” portion prevents dd from stopping when an error is encountered. The “sync” and “noerror” options are almost always used together.
status=progress tells the command to regularly give an update on how much data has been copied. Without this option the command will still run but it won’t give any output until the command is complete. So making a backup of a very large drive could sit for hours before letting you know it is done. With this option a line like this is constantly updated to let you know how far along the process has gone.
1993998336 bytes (2.0 GB, 1.9 GiB) copied, 59.5038 s, 33.5 MB/s
bs=64K specifies that the “Block Size” of each chunk of data processed will be 64 Kilobytes. The block size can greatly affect the speed of the copy process. A larger block size will typically accelerate the copy process unless the block size is so large that it overwhelms the amount of RAM on your computer.
Making a compressed backup image file
At this point you could use the “of=/dev/sdb” option to output the contents directly to another drive /dev/sdb. But I opted to make an image file of the drive, and piping the dd output through gzip allowed me to compress the resulting image into a much smaller image file.
| gzip -c pipes the output of dd into the gzip command and writes the compressed data to stdout. Other options could be added here to change the compression ratio, but the default compression was sufficient for my needs.
> backup_image.img.gz redirects the output of the gzip command into the backup_image.img.gz file.
With that command complete I had copied my 115GB drive into a 585MB compressed image. Most of the drive had been empty space, but without the compression the image would have been 115GB. So this approach can make a lot of sense if you are planning on keeping the image around. If you are just copying from one drive to another then no compression is needed.
So there you have it, the process of making a full disk backup with dd. But I guess that is only half the story, so now I will share the command I used to restore that image file to another drive with dd.
Restoring a Full Drive Backup with DD
Fortunately the dd restore process is a bit more straightforward than the backup process. So without further adieu here is the command.
gunzip -c backup_image.img.gz | dd of=/dev/sdc status=progress
gunzip -c backup_image.img.gz right off the bat “gunzip” starts decompressing the file “backup_image.img.gz” and the “-c” sends the decompressed output to stdout.
| dd of=/dev/sdc pipes the output from gunzip into the dd command which is only specifying the “output file” of “/dev/sdc”.
status=progress again this option displays some useful stats about how the dd process is proceeding.
Once the has completed the transfer you should be good to go. But a couple caveats to remember. First the drive you restore to should be the same size or larger than the backup drive. Second, if the restore drive is larger, you will end up with empty space after the restore is complete. ie: 115GB image restored to a 200GB drive will result in the first 115GB of the drive being usable, and 85GB of free space at the end of the drive. So you may want to expand the restored partition(s) to fill up the extra space on the new drive with parted, or a similar tool. Lastly, if you use a smaller drive for the restore dd will not warn you that it won’t fit, it will just start copying and will fail when it runs out of space.
DD is an amazing tool that has been around for a while. And it continues to be relevant and useful each day. It can get you out of a bind and save your data, so give it a whirl and see what it can help you with today.
Here are a couple resources that I referenced to help me build my dd command. A guide on making a full metal backup with dd. And a general DD usage guide.