Backing up and restoring data on Android devices directly via USB
Posted on by Daniel Kulesz
I was looking for a simple way to backup data on rooted Android devices directly to a device running GNU/Linux connected over a USB cable (in my case, a desktop computer). In the following, I describe two ways how this can be accomplished.
Is this really so unique that it’s worth writing a new article about it? Well, in my case, I did not want to buffer the data on any “intermediate” devices such as storage cards connected via microSD or USB-OTG. Also, I did not want to use any proprietary tools or formats. Instead, I wanted to store my backups in “oldschool” formats such as dd-images or tar archives. I did not find a comprehensive howto for that, so I decided to write this article.
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In no event the author we be liable for any loss or damage including without limitation, indirect or consequential loss or damage, or any loss or damage whatsoever arising from loss of data or profits arising out of, or in connection with, the use of this article.
This article describes two different approaches. Both have their pros and cons:
- Block-level: Doing 1:1 block-level backups (above the file system) is an imaging approach that corresponds to doing dd-style backups.
- Filesystem-level: Doing filesystem-level backups (on the file system) corresponds to tar-style backups.
An important factor when doing backups is also performance. Filesystem-level backups are usually faster on block devices which are only filled up to a small degree. However, due to the file system overhead they have a lower “raw” throughput rate — especially when backing up data on flash media such as microSD cards. Here, typical filesystems such as ext4 or f2fs operating with a 4K block size are a major bottleneck as these media often have horrible 4k write/read performance.
The following instructions for applying these approaches assume that you already have a “liberated” Android device which can boot into TWRP (a free Android recovery) or CWM. I am using the example of a Nexus-S running Replicant 4.2.0004 and TWRP 126.96.36.199, but the approaches also work with most other Android distributions and recoveries.
Getting familiar with the block devices on your Android device
First of all, you should know which block device you actually want to backup. The internal flash on Android devices is usually partitioned in about 15-25 partitions, depending on the device. To get a first overview, you can try the following (I am using adb shell on the desktop):
$ adb shell cat /proc/partitions
major minor #blocks name 31 0 2048 mtdblock0 31 1 1280 mtdblock1 31 2 8192 mtdblock2 31 3 8192 mtdblock3 31 4 480768 mtdblock4 31 5 13824 mtdblock5 31 6 6912 mtdblock6 179 0 15552512 mmcblk0 179 1 524288 mmcblk0p1 179 2 1048576 mmcblk0p2 179 3 13978607 mmcblk0p3 179 16 1024 mmcblk0boot1 179 8 1024 mmcblk0boot0
To find out what the partitions are about you can inspect the directory
/dev/block/platform//by-Name/ which contains symlinks to the actual partitions. In my case, the Nexus-S has two flash chips and I am listing the partitions of the one where the userdata-partition resides on:
$ adb shell ls -l /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name
lrwxrwxrwx root root 2016-11-02 19:51 media -> /dev/block/mmcblk0p3 lrwxrwxrwx root root 2016-11-02 19:51 system -> /dev/block/mmcblk0p1 lrwxrwxrwx root root 2016-11-02 19:51 userdata -> /dev/block/mmcblk0p2
Please note that unlike the Nexus-S, most newer Android devices only have a single eMMC flash chip and don’t use MTD devices anymore.
Block-level backups take up a lot of space (without compression) and extracting single files is cumbersome (especially when talking about encrypted data partitions or backups of the whole flash). On the other hand, “just” restoring a full backup is easy.
Backing up a single partition
Now that you know which block devices you want to backup, you can directly create a 1:1 image via
adb pull as you would normally do by using
dd. In our case:
$ adb pull /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name/userdata
7942 KB/s (1073741824 bytes in 132.027s)
On your workstation, you will obtain a file named
userdata which contains the whole partition/filesystem as an image. If you didn’t enable encryption on your Android device, you can directly mount this file as loopback device and access its contents:
$ mount userdata /mnt
Restoring a single partition
To restore your backup, you can simply use adb push. In my case:
$ adb push userdata /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name/userdata
However, since adb seems to put the file in RAM first before writing it to the target this only works if your partition fits in RAM. Otherwise, you are likely to get a message such as:
failed to copy 'userdata' to '/dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name/userdata': No space left on device
One way to fix this is by using netcat. First, run the following on the receiver side (the phone):
# busybox nc -lp 5555 > /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name/userdata
And on the machine where you have stored your backup:
$ adb forward tcp:4444 tcp:5555 $ cat userdata | nc -q 2 localhost 4444
Optionally, you can also pipe the
nc command through
pv if you have this installed to get a nice progress bar:
$ cat userdata | pv | nc -q 2 localhost 4444
Alternative: Operating on the whole block device
Instead of backing up just a single partition, it is also possible to backup the whole flash device including all partitions. Example:
$ adb pull /dev/block/mmcblk0
- On some devices, not all partitions are readable and, thus, cannot be backed up.
- Please be careful with restores!
- Accessing files inside this image is not straight-forward (but doable).
Filesystem-level backups only work for single partitions, take up as much space as the files on the particular filesystem you backup and it is easy to access individual files in them. I am using a combination of
adb, netcat and
tar to create and restore these backups.
Backing up your data
First, connect to your device via an adb shell:
$ adb shell
Then, change to the directory from where you want to create your backup. If your device was not automatically mounted, you have to do it first:
# mount /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name /data
Now change to this directory:
# cd /data
Now, start the netcat process:
# tar -cvp . | busybox nc -lp 5555
On the receiver side (desktop), set up adb port forwarding:
$ adb forward tcp:4444 tcp:5555
Then, start the process to receive the tar file:
$ nc -w 10 localhost 4444 > userdata.tar
You should see your files being packed up on the Android side:
./ ./lost+found/ ./dontpanic/ ./misc/ ./misc/adb/ ./misc/audit/ ./misc/audit/audit.log ...
Now wait for the process to exit.
Restoring your data
Again, on your receiver side (Android device), mount /data if it was not mounted yet and change in there:
# mount /dev/block/platform/s3c-sdhci.0/by-name /data # cd /data
Now, start the tar extraction process:
# busybox nc -lp 5555 | tar -xpvf -
On the sender side (desktop), again, set up adb port forwarding:
$ adb forward tcp:4444 tcp:5555
And send the tar file:
$ cat userdata.tar | nc -q 2 localhost 4444
Now you should be able to see your previously backed up files getting restored…
History / Changelog
- [2022-08-26] Add nc method to section about restoring single partitions so it works for larger partitions as well
- [2016-11-02] Initial version
(The providers of these resources are solely responsible for them - see legal notice).
For the filesystem-level part of the article I used and adapted the following sources: