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HOWTO: Backup your configuration files (dotfiles) in Linux, using stow and git

Managing dotfiles has always been quite annoying to me. But thankfully, I never really had a reason to do it too often. If I had to, all I did was tar my whole .config and copy the file to and external drive.

That works fine, but it’s not the best way to backup the constant changes I usually do to customize the way my programs look or act, and as a customization freak, that happens quite often.

I had seen many different ways to backup dotfiles: git bare repos, yadm, symlinking scripts, and of course, GNU Stow.

All of these methods have their up and downs, but in the end, stow convinced me, and I decided to give it a try. According to their home page:

Quote

GNU Stow is a symlink farm manager which takes distinct packages of software and/or data located in separate directories on the filesystem, and makes them appear to be installed in the same place.

If you don’t really understand it yet, don’t worry, I don’t either! But in this post, I will do my best to show you the steps to backup your current config files, I hope whoever reads this finds it useful.

Creating a dotfiles repository

The first step to backup your dotfiles, is to create an empty repository in some hosting service, such as GitHub, Codeberg or SourceHut. This is optional if you only want to see how stow works, but necessary to have an external backup outside your computer. Once you are done, clone the empty repo to your home directory, or in any place you want. (This tutorial will be using the home directory).

To clone a repo, just do:

git clone https://site.com/link/to/repo

 

In my case, I use Tildegit, a Gitea instance, so my command looks like this.

git clone https://tildegit.org/chrono/dotfiles.git

 

You can clone my dotfiles if you want to use them, here they are if you are interested.

Using stow to backup your configuration

Before actually backing something up, we need to install stow, depending on your distribution, you can install it with your package manager of choice. In my case, EndeavourOS is based on Arch, so I do:

$ sudo pacman -S stow

 

Lets start by backing up the configuration of a single program. While we can backup our whole .config folder, that’s not a good idea, since some programs store important information that should stay private, and I think its better to only backup what we have actually configured. For this example, I will backup my picom configurations.

 

The first step is to create a new directory to use as a base (if you cloned your empty repo, you’ll be using that). You also have to create a folder structure, depending on where you want the configuration to be stored, this depends on the location the program will read its configuration from. We’ll refer to this folder as dotfiles.

 

If you want to add a README file or other stuff that you is not a config files, you can create another directory inside of dotfiles, in my case, I have made a stow_home folder, which will be where we’ll run the stow command.

Lets explain how stow works. Picom expects its config file in ~/.config/picom/picom.conf, so, inside of the new home_stow directory, we recreate that folder structure, but using the program name (picom) instead of the tilde (~), which usually refers to the home folder.

 

Lets put all of this together in the terminal.

$ mkdir dotfiles && cd dotfiles # mkdir only if you didn't clone it
$ touch README.md other_file.txt # optional
$ mkdir -p ~/dotfiles/stow_home/picom/.config/picom/
$ mv ~/.config/picom/ ~/dotfiles/stow_home/picom/.config/

 

Once you do that, your picom folder is no longer in the .config directory, but inside of dotfiles/home_stow, following the same folder structure, as if home_stow was the /home directory, followed by the user picom and the path to the picom configuration files.

Now we repeat this process with all of the files and directories we want to back up. Once done, the behavior of the programs you use, such as vim, should revert to their default configurations, since the user config files are no longer there. So, now its time to fix that! Inside of stow_home, run the following command:

$ stow -vt ~ *

 

This will symlink everything inside of stow_home, targetting ~ as the starting point. The -v flag will let you know of everything being done, so you should see an output like this, depending on the programs you backed up:

$ stow -vt ~ *
LINK: .config/awesome => ../dotfiles/stow_home/awesome/.config/awesome
LINK: .config/bat => ../dotfiles/stow_home/bat/.config/bat
LINK: .config/dunst => ../dotfiles/stow_home/dunst/.config/dunst
LINK: .config/nvim => ../dotfiles/stow_home/nvim/.config/nvim
LINK: .config/picom => ../dotfiles/stow_home/picom/.config/picom
LINK: .config/rofi => ../dotfiles/stow_home/rofi/.config/rofi
LINK: .config/spectrwm => ../dotfiles/stow_home/spectrwm/.config/spectrwm

 

File versioning with git

If you are reading this guide, you probably know the necessary git commands to backup everything to the service you chose at the beginning of this tutorial.

Generally, every time you do changes you only need to follow these three commands, inside of your dotfiles folder.

$ git add *
$ git commit -m "Added config files"
$ git push

Remember that the last command will not work if you don’t have an external repository.

The manual of GNU Stow contains a lot more than what I mentioned here, like unlinking and other flags that can be used and might be useful for your use case.

Finishing up

Anyways, that’s all folks, you can check out my dotfiles if you want to see how stow looks once setup, I am quite happy with it, if I do say so myself.

If you feel like a step is not clear enough, please let me know in the comments.

Bonus script!

So, if you read until the end of this tutorial. I actually did a pretty decent bash script to automate everything here.

All you need to do is configure it to your liking, add it to your $PATH and give it execution permissions with chmod +x dotstow, running it like this:

dotstow file_or_folder

 

The script is as follows, it uses basic tools like cut and of course, stow.

#!/usr/bin/bash
# Dotstow - Backup your chosen dotfiles in one go using stow.
# Run it outside of the folder/file you want to back up
# $ dotstow file-or-program

STOW_DIR=$HOME/dotfiles/stow_home
DIR=$(pwd | cut -d '/' -f4-)
NEW_DIR=$STOW_DIR/$1/$DIR
mkdir -pv $NEW_DIR
mv -v $1 $NEW_DIR
cd $STOW_DIR
stow -vt ~ $1

 

The program does not check if a folder already exists or anything like that. So feel free to leave any suggestions.

Extra notes [IMPORTANT]

  • You can just use dotfiles as is without a folder inside it, but if you want to be able to quickly deploy everything using *, you must make a folder where README and other files you don’t want to symlink won’t interfere .
  • Other files, like .bashrc, are not in the .config folder, keep in mind that the path to use depends on where the program needs it to be. In this case, it would have to be placed in ~/dotfiles/stow_home/bash/.bashrc.
  • You can also move specific files of a configuration folder. For example, tut, a mastodon client, saves the account data (passwords, etc) inside of another file in its configuration folder. if thats the case. You should move only the files you want, instead of the whole directory. stow should manage the rest.
  • If you are unsure about the paths you created, you can run the -n flag to simulate the output and see exactly where each symlink would be placed. That way you dont end up symlinking in the wrong place and doing weird stuff to your filesystem.

 

Sources:

 

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