Sync your data with Unison

Martín Lamas
May 6 · 3 min read
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Currently I am managing two little servers and I need to keep some data in sync. Until now, I was performing this task using the tool and a task. This approach is simple and functional, but there is a problem: the sync must be bidirectional if we need to keep two identical replicas and avoid integrity issues. Rsync does not support this.

There are several options to carry out this task, such as , but I have chosen a simple approach using , a user-level tool that can be used to sync two replicas.

Introduction to Unison

Unison is a file-sync tool for OSX, Unix, and Windows. It allows two replicas of a collection of files to be stored on different hosts (or different disks on the same host), modified separately, and then brought up to date by propagating the changes in each replica to the other.

This tool works like rsync but it keeps stateful data supporting the bidirectional sync. Also, security is guaranteed because it can work over SSH tunnels.


To install Unison we can download the precompiled binaries from . In order to use the binary from a terminal, we must place it in a directory included in the system path.

Alternatively, in a debian-like distribution, we can install the tool using :

sudo apt-get -y install unison

In OSX, we must use to perform the installation:

brew install unison

Once installed, we can sync two directories running the following command:

unison -batch dir1 dir2

We must use the -batch CLI option to launch the tool in batch mode to skip user intervention.

Synching remote hosts through SSH

Once installed we can sync two servers connected over the internet. To keep things safe we will use SSH tunnels to transfer the data.

In this scenario, one of the servers acts as the master and the other as the slave. Unison must be installed on both master and slave. Configuration must be set in the master, which is responsible for launching the sync process.

Unison provides an extensive set of CLI options that we can use to establish the sync configuration. Also, we can set those options using a configuration file.

The configuration file must be named .unison/default.prf and placed under the user’s home directory. The following gist shows the configuration of my master server:

The most important option to setup is the root of the paths to sync. There must be exactly two: the local server path and the remote server path. Because we are using the SSH protocol in the remote root, we need to between slave and master.

Other relevant options are:

  • The path option designate the paths inside the root that must be synched.
  • With the ignore options we can define path exclusions using globs or exact matches.
  • The auto and batch options must be used to avoid the user intervention when the sync process is performed.
  • The purpose of the fastcheck option is to define which method must be used to check if a file should be updated. When set to true, the size and the last modification time of the file are used to check if the file has changed. When set to false a full-content comparison is used.

The sample file is self-descriptive but we can query the full documentation running man unison.

Scheduling the sync

Once configured, we can run the unison command in the master server to perform the sync.

A simple approach to avoid manual synching is to use a cron task to schedule it every minute. Since we want to avoid multiple unison processes running at the same time, we must create a simple script to launch unison only if it is not currently running:

The last step is adding our script to the crontab:

*/1 * * * * /usr/local/bin/ > /dev/null

Summing up

Unison and cron simplify the process of periodically synching a pair of local or remote folders. Unison is similar to rsync but adds support for bidirectional synching.


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Thanks to Iván Lomba.

Martín Lamas

Written by

Software developer @trabe



We are a development studio. We use Java, Rails, and JavaScript. This is where we write about the technologies we use at Trabe.