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Overview & Terminology

All work zrepl does is performed by the zrepl daemon which is configured in a single YAML configuration file loaded on startup. The following paths are considered:

  • If set, the location specified via the global --config flag

  • /etc/zrepl/zrepl.yml

  • /usr/local/etc/zrepl/zrepl.yml

The zrepl configcheck subcommand can be used to validate the configuration. The command will output nothing and exit with zero status code if the configuration is valid. The error messages vary in quality and usefulness: please report confusing config errors to the tracking issue #155. Full example configs such as in the quick-start guides or the config/samples/ directory might also be helpful. However, copy-pasting examples is no substitute for reading documentation!

Config File Structure

global: ...
- name: backup
  type: push
- ...

zrepl is configured using a single YAML configuration file with two main sections: global and jobs. The global section is filled with sensible defaults and is covered later in this chapter. The jobs section is a list of jobs which we are going to explain now.

Jobs & How They Work Together

A job is the unit of activity tracked by the zrepl daemon. The type of a job determines its role in a replication setup and in snapshot management. Jobs are identified by their name, both in log files and the zrepl status command.


The job name is persisted in several places on disk and thus cannot be changed easily.

Replication always happens between a pair of jobs: one is the active side, and one the passive side. The active side connects to the passive side using a transport and starts executing the replication logic. The passive side responds to requests from the active side after checking its permissions.

The following table shows how different job types can be combined to achieve both push and pull mode setups. Note that snapshot-creation denoted by “(snap)” is orthogonal to whether a job is active or passive.

Setup name

active side

passive side

use case

Push mode

push (snap)


  • Laptop backup

  • NAS behind NAT to offsite

Pull mode


source (snap)

  • Central backup-server for many nodes

  • Remote server to NAS behind NAT

Local replication

push + sink in one config

Snap & prune-only

snap (snap)


How the Active Side Works

The active side (push and pull job) executes the replication and pruning logic:

  • Wakeup because of finished snapshotting (push job) or pull interval ticker (pull job).

  • Connect to the corresponding passive side using a transport and instantiate an RPC client.

  • Replicate data from the sending to the receiving side (see below).

  • Prune on sender & receiver.


The progress of the active side can be watched live using the zrepl status subcommand.

How the Passive Side Works

The passive side (sink and source) waits for connections from the corresponding active side, using the transport listener type specified in the serve field of the job configuration. When a client connects, the transport listener performS listener-specific access control (cert validation, IP ACLs, etc) and determines the client identity. The passive side job then uses this client identity as follows:

  • The sink job maps requests from different client identities to their respective sub-filesystem tree root_fs/${client_identity}.

  • The source might, in the future, embed the client identity in zrepl’s ZFS abstraction names in order to support multi-host replication.


The implementation of the sink job requires that the connecting client identities be a valid ZFS filesystem name components.

How Replication Works

One of the major design goals of the replication module is to avoid any duplication of the nontrivial logic. As such, the code works on abstract senders and receiver endpoints, where typically one will be implemented by a local program object and the other is an RPC client instance. Regardless of push- or pull-style setup, the logic executes on the active side, i.e. in the push or pull job.

The following high-level steps take place during replication and can be monitored using the zrepl status subcommand:

  • Plan the replication:

    • Compare sender and receiver filesystem snapshots

    • Build the replication plan

      • Per filesystem, compute a diff between sender and receiver snapshots

      • Build a list of replication steps

        • If possible, use incremental and resumable sends

        • Otherwise, use full send of most recent snapshot on sender

    • Retry on errors that are likely temporary (i.e. network failures).

    • Give up on filesystems where a permanent error was received over RPC.

  • Execute the plan

    • Perform replication steps in the following order: Among all filesystems with pending replication steps, pick the filesystem whose next replication step’s snapshot is the oldest.

    • Create placeholder filesystems on the receiving side to mirror the dataset paths on the sender to root_fs/${client_identity}.

    • Acquire send-side step-holds on the step’s from and to snapshots.

    • Perform the replication step.

    • Move the replication cursor bookmark on the sending side (see below).

    • Move the last-received-hold on the receiving side (see below).

    • Release the send-side step-holds.

The idea behind the execution order of replication steps is that if the sender snapshots all filesystems simultaneously at fixed intervals, the receiver will have all filesystems snapshotted at time T1 before the first snapshot at T2 = T1 + $interval is replicated.

ZFS Background Knowledge

This section gives some background knowledge about ZFS features that zrepl uses to provide guarantees for a replication filesystem. Specifically, zrepl guarantees by default that incremental replication is always possible and that started replication steps can always be resumed if they are interrupted.

ZFS Send Modes & Bookmarks ZFS supports full sends (zfs send fs@to) and incremental sends (zfs send -i @from fs@to). Full sends are used to create a new filesystem on the receiver with the send-side state of fs@to. Incremental sends only transfer the delta between @from and @to. Incremental sends require that @from be present on the receiving side when receiving the incremental stream. Incremental sends can also use a ZFS bookmark as from on the sending side (zfs send -i #bm_from fs@to), where #bm_from was created using zfs bookmark fs@from fs#bm_from. The receiving side must always have the actual snapshot @from, regardless of whether the sending side uses @from or a bookmark of it.

Plain and raw sends By default, zfs send sends the most generic, backwards-compatible data stream format (so-called ‘plain send’). If the sent uses newer features, e.g. compression or encryption, zfs send has to un-do these operations on the fly to produce the plain send stream. If the receiver uses newer features (e.g. compression or encryption inherited from the parent FS), it applies the necessary transformations again on the fly during zfs recv.

Flags such as -e, -c and -L tell ZFS to produce a send stream that is closer to how the data is stored on disk. Sending with those flags removes computational overhead from sender and receiver. However, the receiver will not apply certain transformations, e.g., it will not compress with the receive-side compression algorithm.

The -w (--raw) flag produces a send stream that is as raw as possible. For unencrypted datasets, its current effect is the same as -Lce.

Encrypted datasets can only be sent plain (unencrypted) or raw (encrypted) using the -w flag.

Resumable Send & Recv The -s flag for zfs recv tells zfs to save the partially received send stream in case it is interrupted. To resume the replication, the receiving side filesystem’s receive_resume_token must be passed to a new zfs send -t <value> | zfs recv command. A full send can only be resumed if @to still exists. An incremental send can only be resumed if @to still exists and either @from still exists or a bookmark #fbm of @from still exists.

ZFS Holds ZFS holds prevent a snapshot from being deleted through zfs destroy, letting the destroy fail with a datset is busy error. Holds are created and referred to by a tag. They can be thought of as a named, persistent lock on the snapshot.

ZFS Abstractions Managed By zrepl

With the background knowledge from the previous paragraph, we now summarize the different on-disk ZFS objects that zrepl manages to provide its functionality.

Placeholder filesystems on the receiving side are regular ZFS filesystems with the ZFS property zrepl:placeholder=on. Placeholders allow the receiving side to mirror the sender’s ZFS dataset hierarchy without replicating every filesystem at every intermediary dataset path component. Consider the following example: S/H/J shall be replicated to R/sink/job/S/H/J, but neither S/H nor S shall be replicated. ZFS requires the existence of R/sink/job/S and R/sink/job/S/H in order to receive into R/sink/job/S/H/J. Thus, zrepl creates the parent filesystems as placeholders on the receiving side. If at some point S/H and S shall be replicated, the receiving side invalidates the placeholder flag automatically. The zrepl test placeholder command can be used to check whether a filesystem is a placeholder.

The replication cursor bookmark and last-received-hold are managed by zrepl to ensure that future replications can always be done incrementally. The replication cursor is a send-side bookmark of the most recent successfully replicated snapshot, and the last-received-hold is a hold of that snapshot on the receiving side. Both are moved atomically after the receiving side has confirmed that a replication step is complete.

The replication cursor has the format #zrepl_CUSOR_G_<GUID>_J_<JOBNAME>. The last-received-hold tag has the format zrepl_last_received_J_<JOBNAME>. Encoding the job name in the names ensures that multiple sending jobs can replicate the same filesystem to different receivers without interference.

Tentative replication cursor bookmarks are short-lived bookmarks that protect the atomic moving-forward of the replication cursor and last-received-hold (see this issue). They are only necessary if step holds are not used as per the setting. The tentative replication cursor has the format #zrepl_CUSORTENTATIVE_G_<GUID>_J_<JOBNAME>. The zrepl zfs-abstraction list command provides a listing of all bookmarks and holds managed by zrepl.

Step holds are zfs holds managed by zrepl to ensure that a replication step can always be resumed if it is interrupted, e.g., due to network outage. zrepl creates step holds before it attempts a replication step and releases them after the receiver confirms that the replication step is complete. For an initial replication full @initial_snap, zrepl puts a zfs hold on @initial_snap. For an incremental send @from -> @to, zrepl puts a zfs hold on both @from and @to. Note that @from is not strictly necessary for resumability – a bookmark on the sending side would be sufficient –, but size-estimation in currently used OpenZFS versions only works if @from is a snapshot. The hold tag has the format zrepl_STEP_J_<JOBNAME>. A job only ever has one active send per filesystem. Thus, there are never more than two step holds for a given pair of (job,filesystem).

Step bookmarks are zrepl’s equivalent for holds on bookmarks (ZFS does not support putting holds on bookmarks). They are intended for a situation where a replication step uses a bookmark #bm as incremental from where #bm is not managed by zrepl. To ensure resumability, zrepl copies #bm to step bookmark #zrepl_STEP_G_<GUID>_J_<JOBNAME>. If the replication is interrupted and #bm is deleted by the user, the step bookmark remains as an incremental source for the resumable send. Note that zrepl does not yet support creating step bookmarks because the corresponding ZFS feature for copying bookmarks is not yet widely available . Subscribe to zrepl issue #326 for details.

The zrepl zfs-abstraction list command provides a listing of all bookmarks and holds managed by zrepl.


More details can be found in the design document replication/



Currently, zrepl does not replicate filesystem properties. When receiving a filesystem, it is never mounted (-u flag) and mountpoint=none is set. This is temporary and being worked on issue #24.

Multiple Jobs & More than 2 Machines

The quick-start guides focus on simple setups with a single sender and a single receiver. This section documents considerations for more complex setups.


Before you continue, make sure you have a working understanding of how zrepl works and what zrepl does to ensure that replication between sender and receiver is always possible without conflicts. This will help you understand why certain kinds of multi-machine setups do not (yet) work.


If you can’t find your desired configuration, have questions or would like to see improvements to multi-job setups, please open an issue on GitHub.

Multiple Jobs on one Machine

As a general rule, multiple jobs configured on one machine must operate on disjoint sets of filesystems. Otherwise, concurrently running jobs might interfere when operating on the same filesystem.

On your setup, ensure that

  • all filesystems filter specifications are disjoint

  • no root_fs is a prefix or equal to another root_fs

  • no filesystems filter matches any root_fs

Exceptions to the rule:

  • A snap and push job on the same machine can match the same filesystems. To avoid interference, only one of the jobs should be pruning snapshots on the sender, the other one should keep all snapshots. Since the jobs won’t coordinate, errors in the log are to be expected, but zrepl’s ZFS abstractions ensure that push and sink can always replicate incrementally. This scenario is detailed in one of the quick-start guides.

More Than 2 Machines

This section might be relevant to users who wish to fan-in (N machines replicate to 1) or fan-out (replicate 1 machine to N machines).

Working setups:

  • N push identities, 1 sink (as long as the different push jobs have a different client identity)

    • sink constrains each client to a disjoint sub-tree of the sink-side dataset hierarchy ${root_fs}/${client_identity}. Therefore, the different clients cannot interfere.

Setups that do not work:

  • N pull identities, 1 source job. Tracking issue #380.