etckeeper is a collection of tools to let /etc be stored in a git, mercurial, bazaar or darcs repository. This lets you use git to review or revert changes that were made to /etc. Or even push the repository elsewhere for backups or cherry-picking configuration changes.

It hooks into package managers like apt to automatically commit changes made to /etc during package upgrades. It tracks file metadata that git does not normally support, but that is important for /etc, such as the permissions of /etc/shadow.

It's quite modular and configurable, while also being simple to use if you understand the basics of working with version control.

Security warnings

First, a big warning: By checking /etc into version control, you are creating a copy of files like /etc/shadow that must remain secret. Anytime you have a copy of a secret file, it becomes more likely that the file contents won't remain secret. etckeeper is careful about file permissions, and will make sure that repositories it sets up don't allow anyone but root to read their contents. However, you also must take care when cloning or copying these repositories, not to allow anyone else to see the data.

Since git mushes all the files into packs under the .git directory, the whole .git directory content needs to be kept secret. (Ditto for mercurial and .hg as well as bazaar and .bzr)

Also, since version control systems don't keep track of the mode of files like the shadow file, it will check out world readable, before etckeeper fixes the permissions. The tutorial has some examples of safe ways to avoid these problems when cloning an /etc repository.

Also note that etckeeper init runs code stored in the repository. So don't use it on repositories from untrusted sources.

What etckeeper does

etckeeper has special support to handle changes to /etc caused by installing and upgrading packages. Before apt installs packages, etckeeper pre-install will check that /etc contains no uncommitted changes. After apt installs packages, etckeeper post-install will add any new interesting files to the repository, and commit the changes.

You can also run etckeeper commit by hand to commit changes.

There is also a cron job, that will use etckeeper to automatically commit any changes to /etc each day.

VCS limitations

Version Control Systems are designed as a way to manage source code, not as a way to manage arbitrary directories like /etc. This means there are a few limitations that etckeeper has to work around. These include file metadata storage, empty directories, and special files.

Most VCS, including git, mercurial and bazaar have only limited tracking of file metadata, being able to track the executable bit, but not other permissions or owner info. (darcs doesn't even track executable bits.) So file metadata is stored separately. Among other chores, etckeeper init sets up a pre-commit hook that stores metadata about file owners and permissions into a /etc/.etckeeper file. This metadata is stored in version control along with everything else, and can be applied if the repo should need to be checked back out.

git and mercurial cannot track empty directories, but they can be significant sometimes in /etc. So the pre-commit hook also stores information that can be used to recreate the empty directories in the /etc/.etckeeper file.

Most VCS don't support several special files that you probably won't have in /etc, such as unix sockets, named pipes, hardlinked files (but symlinks are fine), and device files. The pre-commit hook will warn if your /etc contains such special files.

Darcs doesn't support symlinks, so they are also stored in /etc/.etckeeper.


A quick walkthrough of using etckeeper.

Note that the default VCS is git, and this tutorial assumes you're using it. Using other VCSes should be broadly similar.

First, get etckeeper installed. Something like:

apt-get install etckeeper

The etckeeper init command initialises an /etc/.git/ repository. If you installed etckeeper from a package, this was probably automatically performed during the package installation. If not, your first step is to run it by hand:

etckeeper init

The etckeeper init command is careful to never overwrite existing files or directories in /etc. It will create a .gitignore if one doesn't already exist (or update content inside a "managed by etckeeper" comment block), sets up pre-commit hooks if they don't already exist, and so on. It does not commit any files, but does git add all interesting files for an initial commit later.

Now you might want to run git status to check that it includes all the right files, and none of the wrong files. And you can edit the .gitignore and so forth. Once you're ready, it's time to commit:

cd /etc
git status
git commit -m "initial checkin"
git gc # pack git repo to save a lot of space

After this first commit, you can use regular git commands to handle further changes:

passwd someuser
git status
git commit -a -m "changed a password"

Rinse, lather, repeat. You might find that some files are changed by daemons and shouldn't be tracked by git. These can be removed from git:

git rm --cached printcap # modified by CUPS
echo printcap >> .gitignore
git commit -a -m "don't track printcap" 

etckeeper hooks into apt (and similar systems) so changes to interesting files in /etc caused by installing or upgrading packages will automatically be committed. Here "interesting" means files that are not ignored by .gitignore.

You can use any git commands you like, but do keep in mind that, if you check out a different branch or an old version, git is operating directly on your system's /etc. If you do decide to check out a branch or tag, make sure you run "etckeeper init" again, to get any metadata changes:

git checkout april_first_joke_etc
etckeeper init

Often it's better to clone /etc to elsewhere and do potentially dangerous stuff in a staging directory. You can clone the repository using git clone, but be careful that the directory it's cloned into starts out mode 700, to prevent anyone else from seeing files like shadow, before etckeeper init fixes their permissions:

mkdir /my/workdir
cd /my/workdir
chmod 700 .
git clone /etc
cd etc
etckeeper init -d .
chmod 755 ..

Another common reason to clone the repository is to make a backup to a server. When using git push to create a new remote clone, make sure the new remote clone is mode 700! (And, obviously, only push over a secure transport like ssh, and only to a server you trust.)

ssh server 'mkdir /etc-clone; cd /etc-clone; chmod 700 .; git init --bare'
git remote add backup ssh://server/etc-clone
git push backup --all

If you have several machines using etckeeper, you can start with a etckeeper repository on one machine, then add another machine's etckeeper repository as a git remote. Then you can diff against it, examine its history, merge with it, and so on. It would probably not, however, be wise to "git checkout" the other machine's branch! (And if you do, make sure to run "etckeeper init" to update file permissions.)

root@darkstar:/etc>git remote add dodo ssh://dodo/etc
root@darkstar:/etc>git fetch dodo
root@darkstar:/etc>git diff dodo/master group |head
diff --git a/group b/group
index 0242b84..b5e4384 100644
--- a/group
+++ b/group
@@ -5,21 +5,21 @@ sys:x:3:

Incidentally, this also means I have a backup of dodo's /etc on darkstar. So if darkstar is compromised, that data could be used to attack dodo too. On the other hand, if dodo's disk dies, I can restore it from this handy backup.

Of course, it's also possible to pull changes from a server onto client machines, to deploy changes to /etc. Once /etc is under version control, the sky's the limit..


The main configuration file is /etc/etckeeper/etckeeper.conf

etckeeper runs the executable files in /etc/etckeeper/$command.d/. (It ignores the same ones that run-parts(1) would ignore.) You can modify these files, or add your own custom files. Each individual file is short, simple, and does only one action.

For example, here's how to configure it to run git gc after each apt run, which will save a lot of disk space:

cd /etc/etckeeper/post-install.d
(echo '#!/bin/sh' ; echo 'exec git gc') > 99git-gc
chmod +x 99git-gc
git add .
git commit -m "run git gc after each apt run"

Here's how to disable the automatic commits after each apt run, while still letting it git add new files:

rm /etc/etckeeper/commit.d/50vcs-commit

sudo integration

etckeeper will notice if it's being run by way of sudo, and makes a commit with the author set to the user who sudoed to root. This is useful when a system has multiple admins; as long as they use sudo while doing their administration, and run sudo etckeeper commit to commit their changes, git blame can show who was responsible for each change.

changing VCS

By default, etckeeper uses git. This choice has been carefully made; git is the VCS best supported by etckeeper and the VCS users are most likely to know.

[ It's possible that your distribution has chosen to modify etckeeper so its default VCS is not git -- if they have please complain to them, as they're making things unnecessarily difficult for you, and causing unnecessary divergence of etckeeper installations. You should only be using etckeeper with a VCS other than git if you're in love with the other VCS. ]

If you would like to use some other VCS, and etckeeper init has already been run to set up a git repository, you have a decision to make: Is the history recorded in that repository something you need to preserve, or can you afford to just blow it away and check the current /etc into the new VCS?

In the latter case, you just need to follow three steps:

etckeeper uninit # deletes /etc/.git!
vim /etc/etckeeper/etckeeper.conf
etckeeper init

In the former case, you will need to convert the git repository to the other VCS using whatever tools are available to do that. Then you can run etckeeper uninit, move files your new VCS will use into place, edit etckeeper.conf to change the VCS setting, and finally etckeeper init. This procedure is clearly only for the brave.


Two blog posts provided inspiration for techniques used by etckeeper:

isisetup had some of the same aims as etckeeper, however, unlike it, etckeeper does not aim to be a git porcelain with its own set of commands for manipulating the /etc repository. Instead, etckeeper provides a simple setup procedure and hooks for setting up an /etc repository, and then gets out of your way; you manage the repository using regular VCS commands.


etckeeper is licensed under version 2 or greater of the GNU GPL.



Joey Hess