#file #synchronization #synchronize #encryption

app ensync

A flexible ENcrypted file SYNChroniser suitable for uses where the central location is not fully trusted

10 releases (1 stable)

1.0.0 Feb 21, 2021
0.2.5 Jan 10, 2018
0.2.4 Aug 15, 2017
0.2.3 Apr 11, 2017
0.1.3 Feb 25, 2017

#77 in Cryptography

38 downloads per month

GPL-3.0 license

23K SLoC


Build Status


Ensync is an ENcrypted file SYNChroniser. That is, it synchronises files between one or more clients via a central "server" (which might just be, e.g., a flash drive) location, but encrypts the data on the server such that it is impossible to recover the data stored on the server without knowing the keys.


  • Support for full bidirectional synchronisation.

  • Flexible, hierarchical sync rules configuration.

  • Optional transparent compression for file transfers and server-side storage.

  • Transparent block deduplication. If two clients store the same file in the same storage location, the backing storage will be shared, even if the clients cannot read each others' data.

  • Support for multiple passphrases / keys to access the server store.

  • Support for separate key groups, to prevent some clients from reading/writing other clients' data.

Why use Ensync?

  • You want to sync files between multiple systems in a star model (i.e., one central repository to which all systems sync), but encryption is unavailable or problematic on the central point. For example, the central point may be a server that needs to be able to boot without human intervention, or a hosted server.

  • You want to sync files between multiple systems and want something more flexible or transparent than otherwise comparable utilities like Unison.

  • You want to back up multiple systems to the same storage and deduplicate shared data without being able to escalate from read access to one of those systems to read access to all of them. (For this use alone, it may also be worth looking at Tarsnap.

Please note that Ensync's cryptographic properties have not been independently verified.

Supported platforms:

  • The author regularly uses Ensync on FreeBSD (AMD64), DragonFly BSD, and Linux (AMD64 and ARM7), so it is known to work well on those systems.

  • In general, any POSIX-like system that Rust supports should be able to run Ensync.

  • Windows is currently not supported. While not inherently impossible, Windows's filesystem quirks make support rather difficult to implement. There are currently no plans to implement such support, but contributions would be welcome.


Beta. The application itself has proven fairly stable in testing. The protocol between the client and server (when using a separate-process server) may still be subject to incompatible change. The on-disk format will definitely not be changed in a backwards-incompatible way.


  1. Getting Started
  2. About the Sync Process
  3. Configuration Reference
  4. Understanding the Sync Model
  5. Advanced Sync Rules
  6. Key Management
  7. Using Key Groups
  8. Ensync Shell
  9. Security Considerations

Getting Started

The first thing to do is, of course, install Ensync. The easiest way to do this right now is with cargo:

  cargo install ensync

If you are on DragonFly, you also need to pass --no-default-features.

If you will be syncing to a remote host, Ensync will also need to be installed there.

After that, you need to set up configuration and if needed initialise the remote storage. This can either be done automatically with ensync setup, or by manually doing each step.

Automatic Setup

The ensync setup command will write the configuration and perform all setup steps automatically, as well as do some sanity checks. It is recommended if you haven't used ensync before. Manual setup may be necessary for unusual setups.

The basic ensync setup invocation takes three arguments:

  • The configuration location. This must name a directory to be created. Configuration files and sync state is placed within this directory.

  • The local file location. This is a directory containing the files you want to sync.

  • The remote storage location. This may be a directory on your local filesystem, or may be an scp-style user@host:path-format string. In the latter case, ensync setup will connect to the remote host with ssh user@host.

If you don't want your passphrase to be read from the terminal, you can pass the --key parameter to ensync setup, which takes a string in the passphrase configuration format. If you use a file passphrase, the generated configuration will reference the absolute path of that file. In the case of a shell passphrase, the configuration simply holds the string you passed in. In both these cases, you may wish to move files into the configuration directory after setup completes and edit the configuration accordingly.

Once ensync setup completes successfully, you should be good to go. To actually sync files, simply run:

  ensync sync /path/to/config

Manual Setup

First, create a new directory to be the configuration directory. Within this directory, create a file named config.toml. See the Configuration Reference section for full details on what the configuration means. A minimal example:

path = "/path/to/your/files"
server = "shell:ssh yourserver.example.com ensync server ensync-data"
server_root = "your-logical-root"
passphrase = "prompt"
compression = "best"

mode = "cud/cud"

If this is the first time using that particular storage instance, you need to initialise the key store:

  ensync key init /path/to/config

If your chosen server_root has not been created on the server yet, you also need to take care of that now:

  ensync mkdir /path/to/config /your-logical-root

With that taken care of, you should be good to go, and can run

  ensync sync /path/to/config

to start syncing.

About the Sync Process


Ensync uses a three-phase sync process:

  1. Search for changes.
  2. Reconcile and apply changes.
  3. Clean up.

In the first phase, Ensync scans every local directory it had previously marked as clean to see if there may be any changes, and similarly tests whether server-side directories marked as clean have been changed. This phase is only used to determine what directories need to be processed.

In the "reconcile and apply changes" phase, Ensync recursively walks the client and server directory trees, ignoring directories which are still clean (including all subdirectories). Separate directories are processed in parallel.

For each examined directory, Ensync lists all files, matches them by name, and then determines what change should be applied. When reconciliation is done, it applies the selected change to each file in sequence. If all operations succeed, the directory is marked clean.

In the cleanup phase, temporary and orphaned files are cleaned, and volatile data committed.

Efficient Rename Handling

Ensync is not aware of file rename operations; it simply sees them as a deletion of one file followed by a creation of another file. However, Ensync does take some steps to prevent needing to re-transfer file content in this case.

On the server, blocks from deleted files linger until some client runs its cleanup phase. This means that if a new file is created during the same sync with the same content, it will be able to reuse those blocks instead of needing to re-upload them.

Locally, deleted files are moved to a temporary location inside the configuration/state directory and not actually deleted until the cleanup phase. If the same content is encountered again, the data is copied out of the moved file instead of being re-downloaded from the server. This functionality does require, however, that the directory being synced is on the same filesystem as the configuration directory. If it is not, deleted files are simply deleted immediately, so renames will require re-downloading from the server in cases where the deletion is seen first.

Keep in mind that due to these optimisations, disk usage will not reduce due to deletions until Ensync completes, which could cause issues a sync simultaneously creates and deletes a lot of very large files.

Concurrency and Failure

Ensync will not behave incorrectly if any client files are modified while it is running, insofar as that it will not corrupt the store on the server. However, such files cannot be captured in an atomic state, and may therefore be less than useful. For example, you should not try to use Ensync to replicate or back up a live database.

Multiple Ensync instances cannot be run concurrently on the same configuration. It is safe to run multiple Ensync instances with different configurations over the same local directory tree, but be aware that they could see each other's intermediate states and propagate them. It is safe to run any number of Ensync instances against the same server store.

If the server process is killed gracelessly, it may leak temporary files but will not corrupt the store.

If the client process dies before completion, some temporary files may be leaked, and the filesystem may be left in an intermediate state, but no data will be lost. In some cases, cached data may be lost, which will result in the next sync being much slower than usual.

In case of power loss, all committed changes are expected to survive, conditional on your operating system's fsync call actually syncing the data and the underlying hardware behaving properly. One exception is the ancestor state, which may in some cases be destroyed by unexpected termination of the OS. If this happens, the next sync will simply be more conservative than normal, which generally manifests in deletions being undone and additional conflict files being created.

Errors that occur when processing a single file are generally logged without interrupting the rest of the sync process.

Filesystem Limitations

Only regular files, symlinks, and directories are supported. Other types of files are not synced.

The basic read/write/execute permissions of regular files and directories are synced, as well as the modified time of regular files. Other attributes and alternate data streams are ignored.

Using Ensync with a case-insensitive filesystem (or, more generally, any filesystem which considers one byte sequence to match a directory entry whose name is a different byte sequence) is generally a bad idea, but is partially supported so long as nothing causes two files on the server to exist which the insensitive filesystem considers the same. If this happens, or if equivalent but different names are created on the server and client, the result will generally involve one version overwriting the other or the two being merged. No guarantees are made here, nor is Ensync tested in these conditions.

Using Ensync with a filesystem which performs name normalisation (i.e., one where trying to create a file whose name is one byte sequence results in creating a file with a name which is a different byte sequence) is strongly discouraged. These normalisations appear as a rename to Ensync and will be propagated as such (i.e., as a deletion and a creation). In practise, there won't be serious issues here as long as all participants use exactly the same normalisation or if no names which would be changed by any normalisation are ever created. If there are multiple participants using different normalisation, the result will be rename fighting every time each participant syncs. Be aware here that a particular fruit-flavoured OS not only has a normalising filesystem by default, but uses a different normalisation than the rest of the world.

Ensync is not aware of hard links. Since it never overwrites files in-place, having hard links will not cause issues, but Ensync may turn them into separate files, and they will be created as separate files on other systems. Hard links between directories, should your filesystem actually support them, are not supported at all and will likely cause numerous issues.

If your system permits opening directories as regular files (eg, FreeBSD), you may end up in a weird situation if something changes a regular file into a directory at just the right moment. No data will be lost locally, but the raw content of the directory may propagate as a regular file instead.

Configuration Reference

At a Glance

The configuration is a TOML file stored as config.toml under the configuration directory. It has two required sections: [general] and [rules]. All file names are relative to the configuration directory. The configuration looks like this:

# The path to the local files, i.e., the directory containing the cleartext
# files to be synced.
path = "/some/path"

# The server location, i.e., where the encrypted data is stored. The exact
# syntax for this described below.
server = "path:/another/path"

# The name of the logical root on the server to sync with. This is the name of
# a directory under the physical root of the server which is used as the top of
# the directory tree to be synced.
server_root = "the-root-name"

# How to get the passphrase to derive the encryption keys. The formats
# supported are described below.
passphrase = "prompt"

# What level of transparent file compression to use. Valid values are "none",
# "fast", "default", "best". This configuration can be omitted, in which case
# it defaults to "default".
compression = "default"

# Files uploaded to the server are split into blocks of this size. Identical
# blocks are only stored once on the server. A smaller block size may make this
# deduplication more effective, but will slow some things down. This can be
# omitted and will default to one megabyte. If you change it, take care that
# the block size actually corresponds to what you intend to deduplicate.
# All ensync configurations for the same store MUST use the same block size, as
# the block size influences the way ensync computes file identity. Two
# configurations operating on the same files with different block sizes will
# perceive edit conflicts where there are none. Differing configurations
# operating on separate files simply fail to deduplicate files between each
# other effectively.
# To change this value on an already-existing store, ensure your local files
# are up to date with the server, then run `ensync sync` with
# `--override-mode=reset-server --strategy=scrub`. This will re-upload all
# files affected by the block size change.
# The default value is 512 bytes less than 1MB, which gives a reasonable
# balance for most use cases and gives some headroom so that maximum-size
# blocks do not ever so slightly spill into additional file system allocation
# units.
block_size = 1048064

# Specifies the sync rules. This is described in detail in the "Advanced Sync
# Rules" section. The example here is sufficient to apply one sync mode to
# all files.
# The sync mode to use; that is, it describes how various changes are or are
# not propagated. This example is conservative full bidirectional sync. See
# "Understanding the Sync Model" for a full description of what this means.
mode = "cud/cud"

Server Configuration

The server configuration can take one of two forms.

path:some-path causes the "server" to be simply the path some-path on the local filesystem. This is what is used to sync to a flash drive, for example.

shell:some command causes a server process some command to be spawned. The client process communicates with the server via the child process's standard input and output. The ensync server command is the server process this normally communicates with. Because of this design, you can compose the command with anything that forwards standard input and output, such as ssh, which is the usual way of syncing to a remote host. For example, the configuration

server = "shell:ssh myserver.example.org ensync server sync-data

will cause the Ensync client to ssh into myserver.example.org and run ensync server sync-data, which in turn causes the encrypted data to be stored in ~/sync-data.

Passphrase Configuration

The passphrase configuration can take one of four forms.

prompt specifies to read the passphrase from the controlling terminal. This is supported on most, but not all, platforms (DragonFly is the main exception).

string:xxx specifies to use xxx as the literal passphrase.

file:some-file specifies to read the content of some-file and use that as the passphrase. Any trailing CR or LF characters are stripped from the input.

shell:some command specifies to pass some command to the shell, and use the standard output of the command as the passphrase. As with file, trailing CR and LF characters are stripped.

Understanding the Sync Model


Ensync sync model is to essentially perform a 3-way merge on the contents of each directory.

The way this works may be clearer if we start by thinking about how syncing might work as a 2-way merge of the contents of a directory. A 2-way directory merge means to list the contents of each corresponding directory, then match files on each replica together based on their name. Then, determine what needs to change for each file or pair of files. For example, we might visit a directory and build a table like this:

File name Client content Server content
hello.txt hello world hello world
password.txt hunter2 hunter2

This directory is clearly in-sync; the client and server agree on everything. Now let's edit one of the files.

File name Client content Server content
hello.txt hallo welt hello world
password.txt hunter2 hunter2

When our 2-way merger runs, it sees that the two replicas disagree on the content of hello.txt, so clearly one of them must be edited to match the other. But there isn't a clear way to choose. One option is to use the one with the later modified time; in this case, it would be the client, which does what we want.

This approach is called "Last Write Wins", and does work for many cases, but also has a lot of problems. For example, if you restore some files from backup and the backup tool restores their modified time as well, our 2-way merger would immediately undo the restoration since the server-side files would be newer.

But 2-way merge completely breaks once we bring file creation and deletion into the picture. Let's see what happens if we delete "password.txt" on the client and someone else creates a new file on the server:

File name Client content Server content
hello.txt hello world hello world
memo.txt (none) some text here
password.txt (none) hunter2

Notice that for the two files in question, the table looks exactly the same. No logic on this state can handle both the creation and the deletion correctly. And we don't have any timestamps to work with this time.

What Ensync does is add a third replica, the "ancestor" replica, which stores the last state for each file that was in-sync for the client and server replicas. This ancestor replica is used to determine which end replica(s) have actually changed. Thus, our "everything in-sync" table actually looks like

File name Client content Ancestor content Server content
hello.txt hello world hello world hello world
password.txt hunter2 hunter2 hunter2

And the create-and-delete table actually looks like

File name Client content Ancestor content Server content
hello.txt hello world hello world hello world
memo.txt (none) (none) some text here
password.txt (none) hunter2 hunter2

Now, the cases for the creation and deletion are different. We can clearly see that "password.txt" once did exist on both end replicas (since it is in the ancestor replica) but is now gone from the client and was thus deleted, as well as that "memo.txt" was never seen before and thus must be a creation.

Note that for simplicity we notate the ancestor replica as having particular content, but in reality it only stores content hashes and no actual file content.

Sync Mode

The ancestor replica allows Ensync to determine what has changed. The configured sync mode tells Ensync what should be changed in response.

The sync is normally specified as a 7-character string formatted like cud/cud. Each letter is a flag; a lowercase letter indicates "on", an uppercase letter indicates "force", and replacing the letter with a hyphen means "off". Below shows the name and meaning of each flag.

        ┌─────── "Sync inbound create"
        │        New remote files are downloaded to the local filesystem
        │┌────── "Sync inbound update"
        ││       Edits to remote files are applied to local files
        ││┌───── "Sync inbound delete"
        │││      Files deleted remotely are deleted in the local filesystem
            ││└─ "Sync outbound delete"
            ││   Files deleted in the local filesystem are deleted remotely
            │└── "Sync outbound update"
            │    Edits to local files are applied to remote files
            └─── "Sync outbound create"
                 New local files are uploaded to remote storage

More specifically, each flag applies to changes that may be made to that replica under any condition, so they can also be viewed as giving Ensync "permission" to perform that type of operation. For example, if "sync inbound create" is off, Ensync will never create any new files locally.

Setting a flag to "force" will cause Ensync to perform that operation if necessary to bring the replicas in-sync, even if this could result in losing data:

  • "Force create" will cause a deleted file to be recreated if the opposite-bound delete setting is off.

  • "Force delete" will cause a new file to be deleted if the opposite-bound create setting is off. It will also cause edit-delete conflicts to be resolved in favour of delete when the opposite-bound create setting is off.

  • "Force update" will cause updates to be reverted if the opposite update setting is off. It will also cause edit-edit conflicts to be resolved in favour of the side without "force update". If both sides have "force update", edit-edit conflicts are automatically resolved in favour of the version with the newer modified time, or the client if tied.

The most useful sync modes also have aliases:

  • mirror, and reset-server are aliases for ---/CUD (all outbound set to "force", all inbound set to "off"). This causes the server replica to be modified to exactly match the client side, without making any modifications to the client side at all.

  • reset-client is an alias for CUD/--- (all inbound set to "force", all outbound set to "off"). This is the opposite of mirror/reset-server and causes the local file system to be modified to exactly reflect the state of the server side.

  • conservative-sync is an alias for cud/cud, i.e., conservative bidirectional sync.

  • aggressive-sync is an alias for CUD/CUD, i.e., bidirectional sync with automatic resolution of all conflicts.

Other Sync Flags

There are other less commonly-used flags which adjust the reconciliation process. For more details, see the documentation for each flag.

Non-Conflicting States

The below table shows what actions are taken for various (client, ancestor, server) states and sync modes. A * in the sync mode or state indicates "anything"; uppercase letters in the state indicate content (i.e., (A,A,A) indicates client, ancestor, and server have identical file content; (A,,B) indicates client and server have different file content and the ancestor has no content). Conflicts are shown here, but discussed in the next section.

State Sync mode Action
(,*,) ***/*** None
(,,A) c**/*** Create file on client
(,,A) -**/**D Delete file on server
(,,A) (otherwise) Leave out-of-sync
(,A,A) ***/**d Delete file on server
(,A,A) C**/**- Recreate file on client
(,A,A) (otherwise) Leave out-of-sync
(,A,B) ***/*** Edit-delete conflict
(A,,) ***/c** Create file on server
(A,,) **D/-** Delete file on client
(A,,) (otherwise) Leave out-of-sync
(A,A,) **d/*** Delete file on client
(A,A,) **-/C** Recreate file on server
(A,B,) ***/*** Edit-delete conflict
(A,*,A) ***/*** None
(A,A,B) *u*/*** Update client to B
(A,A,B) *-*/*U* Revert server to A
(A,A,B) (otherwise) Leave out-of-sync
(A,B,B) ***/*u* Update server to A
(A,B,B) *U*/*-* Revert client to B
(A,B,B) (otherwise) Leave out-of-sync
(A,,C) ***/*** Edit-edit conflict
(A,B,C) ***/*** Edit-edit conflict

Conflicting States

A conflict occurs when the client and server have both changed to different states since the last sync. Ensync generally tries to handle conflicts as conservatively as possible, but this can be controlled by the sync mode.

An edit-delete conflict occurs when one replica has modified a file since the last sync, and the other has deleted it. Ensync resolves an edit-delete conflict by taking the first choice below according to the sync mode:

  • If create is enabled on the side that deleted the file, recreate the file with the new content, since dealing with an unwanted extra file is easier than recovering data that was deleted.

  • If delete is set to "force" on the side that edited the file, delete it from that side.

  • Otherwise, leave the file out-of-sync.

An edit-edit conflict occurs when both the client and server replicas have changed the state of a file since the last sync, and those states are different. If the replicas each create a file with different content, it is also considered an edit-edit conflict. Edit-edit conflicts are handled by taking the first choice below according to the sync mode:

  • If both update settings are "force" and the file has a modified time on both replicas, use the version with the later modified time.

  • If one update setting is "force", use the version from the opposite replica.

  • If neither update setting is "on", leave the files out-of-sync.

  • If both create settings are at least "on", rename the conflicting file on the server (e.g., foo.txtfoo~1.txt) and then propagate both versions as creates to each opposing side.

  • Otherwise, leave the file out-of-sync.

For "less important" file properties, like mode or timestamp, Ensync always resolves conflicts implicitly and will not rename or create new files. Additionally, these fields are always carried from whatever version was propagated. For example, if you chmod a file locally, but the actual content is updated on the server, and both "update" settings are on, Ensync will update the file to have the content and mode from the server, essentially discarding the effect of the chmod.

Directory Weirdness

The fact that directories contain more files that are themselves subject to syncing complicates the model presented above. Without going into too much detail:

  • If the above rules would delete a directory, Ensync instead recurses into it and syncs it normally, treating the replica as already deleted as having empty directories. If all files within the replica that does still have the directory do in fact get deleted, then the directory itself is deleted. However, if new files were introduced there, the directory path leading there will instead be [re]created on the other replica.

  • If a directory is edited into a non-directory, Ensync will rename the directory on the replica that still holds it and then proceed according to the recursive delete case above.

Advanced Sync Rules

The sync rules are defined in the configuration within the rules table. The rules are divided into one or more states; the initial state is called root. The initial current sync mode is ---/---, i.e., "do nothing".

Each state has two rule-groups at which rules are matched, termed files and siblings. These are sub-tables under the state; so, for example, the minimal rules consist of [[rules.root.files]] and [[rules.root.siblings]] table arrays.

The tables within each rule-group share a similar structure. Each rule consists of any number of distinct conditions, and has one or more actions. (Zero actions is permitted for consistency, but is not useful on its own.) Each rule is evaluated in the order defined and any actions processed.


Before going into detail, some examples will hopefully make the syntax of all this clearer. First, the minimal configuration seen earlier in the documentation:

mode = "cud/cud"

This defines a single rule in the root state. It applies to all files since it has no conditions, and sets the sync mode for every file to cud/cud.

Let's consider a more complex example:

mode = "cud/cud"

name = '~$'
mode = "---/---"

name = '^\.git$'
switch = "git"

mode = "---/---"

This configuration defines two rules in the files rule-group of the root state, one rule in the siblings rule-group of the root state, and one rule in the files rule-group of the git state. It can be read like the following:

  • Unless otherwise noted, use full symmetric sync for files. (First rule: no conditions, set mode to cud/cud.)

  • Don't sync files ending in ~ at all. (Second rule: files whose names match ~$, set mode to ---/---.)

  • If entering a directory containing a .git file, consult the git state instead. (Third rule: sibling matching ^\.git$, switch to git.)

  • Don't sync the contents of git repositories at all. (Fourth rule: in git state, no condition, set mode to ---/---.)

The files rule-group

The files rule-group is used to match individual files (as in directory entries). Generally, most configuration is done here, though it is not possible to, e.g., match git repositories with it.

Each file in a directory is evaluated against the conditions in isolation. Any matching actions are applied to that file and that file alone. For files which are directories, general state (e.g., the current rules state, and the current sync mode) are kept for the directory's contents.

Each file name in a directory is evaluated against the rule set exactly once. If the file exists client-side, the data there is used for matching purposes; otherwise, the server-side file version is used instead.

The siblings rule-group

The siblings rule-group is used to affect the full contents of a directory based on other parts of its contents. It is specifically designed to be able to exclude git repositories, but may have other uses.

When a directory is entered, every file in the directory is examined and tested against all conditions of every rule, keeping a set of which rules have matched. Once all files have been examined, each matched rule is applied in sequence.

It is important to keep in mind that this applies to the contents of the directory as a whole; certain rule combinations can be matched in ways that are impossible for a single file. For example, in the following configuration,

name = '^a$'
mode = "cud/cud"

name = '^b$'
stop = "all"

name = '^a$'
mode = "---/---"

the contents of a directory containing both files named a and b will apply sync mode cud/cud to its contents, since all three rules match, but the second blocks processing of the third.

Note that in order for a directory to be considered for processing at all, the sync mode on the containing directory has to permit that directory to come into existence in the first place; siblings is only evaluated once the containing directory has been entered normally.

Unlike the files rule-group, every version of every file on the client and server is tested for rules matching. This can result in surprising effects if the two disagree. For example, in the following configuration, both rules will apply if the file mode on the client was changed from 0666 to 0777 since the last sync.

permissions = "0666"
include = "other-state-A"

permissions = "0777"
include = "other-state-B"

Because of this, care must be used when constructing sync rules which depend on the contents of files.


Each condition is a string-value TOML pair. Note that this means you cannot use two conditions in the same rule that happen to share the same name; this shouldn't be an issue since most conditions take regexes.

All conditions which match a string interpret the configuration as a regular expression. The target string is coerced to UTF-8, with invalid sequences replaced with substitution characters. Regular expressions are not anchored; if this is desired, ^ and $ must be used explicitly.

Should Ensync be ported to a platform that does not conventionally use / as the path delimiter, the rules engine will still use /, both for simplicity and to keep the expressions readable.


Matches files whose base name matches the given expression. E.g., in the path /foo/bar/baz.txt, baz.txt is the basename.


Matches files whose path relative to the sync root matches the given expression. E.g., if syncing /foo/bar, the file /foo/bar/plugh/xyzzy is tested with plugh/xyzzy.


Matches files whose mode matches the given expression. Before matching, the mode is converted to a 4-digit octal string left-padded with zeroes.


Matches files of the given physical type. The target string will be one of f for regular files, d for directories, or s for symlinks. There is no way to match against other types of files, as they are hardwired to have ---/--- mode.


Matches symlinks whose target matches the given expression. Files which are not symlinks do not match.


Matches regular files whose size is greater than the given number of bytes. Non-regular files do not match.


Matches regular files whose size is smaller than the given number of bytes. Non-regular files do not match.


Each action is a string-value TOML pair. Actions within a rule are evaluated in the order listed below.


Sets the current sync mode to the given value. This completely replaces the current sync mode.


Either true or false (without quotes). Sets whether the reconciliation process trusts the UNIX mode for files on the local filesystem.

If false, the reconciliation process will ignore the actual UNIX mode on files which are also present on the remote replica, substituting it with the mode of the corresponding file on the remote replica. This prevents propagation of mode changes in either direction, which is useful if one client is syncing to a local filesystem which does not store (e.g., FAT32) or return (e.g., noexec mount option) UNIX modes.

The default is true, i.e., sync UNIX permissions normally.


The value is either a string or an array of strings. Each string identifies a different rules state. Rule processing recurses into each listed rule state and processes all rules from the current rule-group for the current file. If processing was not stopped, it resumes on this state as normal. If a listed state is already being evaluated when the include is evaluated, it is ignored.


The value is a string identifying a rules state. Sets the current "switch state". When the current processing is complete, the rules state switches to that state and the switch state is cleared. Essentially, this controls the state used for files within a directory without affecting the directory itself.


The value must be either return or all. If return, processing of the current rules state stops; if this was reached via include, processing continues in the superordinate state. If all, all processing stops, including superordinate states that got here via include.


The following is a simple example which bidirectionally syncs most things, but excludes git and hg repositories and all backup files.

mode = "cud/cud"

name = "~$"
mode = "---/---"

name = '^\.git$'
switch = "git"

mode = "---/---"

Below is a possible convention for making certain files specific to each machine:

target = '/^\.![^/]*$'
mode = "---/---"

name = '^\.!'
mode = "cud/cud"
switch = "private"

mode = "cud/cud"

What the above does is establish a convention of files starting with .! as being machine-specific, and then not syncing symlinks to those files. The files themselves are still synced. (The purpose of this being that things like .bashrc which might vary are still accessible to all clients in the correct place while allowing the underlying files to sync normally.)

Key Management

Ensync allows associating any number of passphrases/keys with the server store. The ensync key subcommands can be used to inspect and manipulate the key store.

Separate keys do not — in and of themselves — control access to the underlying data; rather, multiple keys are mainly useful for ensuring that it is easy to revoke access to a particular client without needing to change keys everywhere else.

For small passphrases (less than 64 characters), Ensync uses a very strong hashing function that can take some systems multiple seconds per key in the key store. If you plan to use a large number of keys, it helps to generate random "passphrases" which are much longer (e.g., dd if=/dev/urandom of=key count=1, then put file:key as the passphrase in the configuration).

Ensync requires all passphrases in the key store to be distinct. This is admittedly an unusual requirement. Note though that nothing is being leaked; clients already get the whole key store to test their passphrases against, so the simple fact that a passphrase conflicts is not new information that could be used in an attack. The restriction exists because Ensync does not, for the sake of ergonomics, take a key name and passphrase pair, but rather only a passphrase, so if two keys had the same passphrase, only one of them would be accessible.

Using Key Groups

Each key in the key store can be associated with any number of key groups. Unlike keys, key groups can actually restrict access to information. Concretely, each key group corresponds to an internal encryption key, and adding a key to a key group adds to that key the information needed to derive that internal key.

By default, there are two key groups:

  • everyone. All keys are always in this group. The everyone group is used as the key for the HMAC of all file blocks and is used as the encryption key of the physical root directory and by default all directories below.

  • root. The root group grants the power to edit the key store, and is the write key for the physical root directory and by default all directories below.

The ensync key group subcommands can be used to create and assign key groups. To make key groups useful, one must understand how the read key and write key are used when encrypting things on the server.

The read key of a directory is the encryption key used to encrypt its content. It is cryptographically unfeasible for a reader without the read key to read a directory or to manipulate the directory content meaningfully.

The write key is required to write a directory or the key store through a normal ensync implementation. Unlike the read key, it has no cryptographic significance; rather, it is a defence-in-depth measure so that the compromise of a client with some access to ensync (but nothing else) cannot be used to, e.g., destroy the key store or cause more data loss.

The default read key is from the everyone group, and the default write key is from the root group. Normally, a directory inherits the keys of its parent. To change the keys, one puts special syntax in the name of that directory. (The fact that this is a very loud and "sticky" mechanism is by design.) The syntax is to place .ensync[config=value,...] anywhere in the name. config is one of the following:

  • r. Set the read key to the internal key of the group identified by value.

  • w. Set the write key to the internal key of the group identified by value.

  • rw. Set both the read and the write key to the internal key of the group identified by value.

For example, a directory named foo.ensync[r=my-group] will cause the directory to have the read key from the my-group group. foo.ensync[r=my-group,w=another-group] sets the read and write keys to my-group and another-group, respectively.

The simplest way to use this feature is in the logical root name (i.e., the server_root configuration key). For example, to create a sync root which only your client has access to, you might do something like this:

$ ensync key group create /path/to/config my-group
$ ensync mkdir /path/to/config /my-client.ensync[rw=my-group]

and then edit the configuration to have my-client.ensync[rw=my-group] as the server_root.

Ensync Shell

It is possible to make ensync a user's shell. This will cause it to always behave as if invoked as ensync server with a particular (fixed) path. The purpose of this is to make it possible for a remote client to access Ensync over ssh without having actual shell access.

The basic procedure for this is:

  • Add the full path to ensync to /etc/shells.

  • Create the user with ensync as their shell.

  • In the user's home directory, make a symlink named ensync-server-dir to the directory where Ensync should store the server data.

You can then simply use shell:ssh -T user@host as the server configuration. For ensync setup, use user@host: as the remote path.

As always, defence-in-depth measures may also be advisable. E.g., make the user's home directory read-only and not owned by them, or even run the whole thing in a chroot (which is fairly easy since ensync does not need anything beyond a fist-full of shared objects to run).

Security Considerations

How Ensync does Encryption

For the purpose of not duplicating documentation, this section only skims over the details. The source code has more detailed documentation.

Passphrases are hashed via scrypt. The client verifies the passphrase is correct by comparing the SHA-3 of the derived key with a value stored on the server.

Each key group represents a randomly-generated 32-byte internal key. To go from a derived key to the internal key group, the client takes the SHA-3 HMAC of the group name and the derived key, and then XORs every byte with a sequence stored in the key store on the server. Each 32-byte internal key is split into a 16-byte AES key and a 16-byte HMAC secret.

Every directory file is encrypted via AES CBC (128-bit) with a random session key and IV, which themselves are encrypted with the read key of that directory and stored at the beginning of the directory file. Directories are internally checksummed with SHA-3 HMAC using the HMAC secret from the read key.

File blocks are encrypted with AES CBC using a key and IV taken from the SHA-3 HMAC of the block content and the HMAC secret of the everyone group's internal key.

The following things are saved in cleartext on the server and are considered "essentially public" information:

  • The names of keys and key groups.

  • The algorithm used for hashing each passphrase.

  • The salt for each passphrase.

  • Other metadata about each passphrase.

  • The SHA-3 sum of each passphrase's derived key.

  • The XOR of the { HMAC of each passphrase's derived key and associated key group name } with the internal key of that key group.

  • The random 32-byte ids of directories, and their encrypted version numbers.

  • The SHA-3 sum of the HMAC of file blocks' content with the everyone group's HMAC secret.

  • The length of directory files and the file blocks.

Of course, ideally one protects the server such that this isn't actually revealed.

What attackers can accomplish

While Ensync is designed to keep your files safe, there are some trade-offs to be aware of (including some which open certain side-channels), and one should understand what an attacker could learn or do if they gain access to various things.

This should be prefaced by to notices:

  • Practise defence-in-depth. I.e., take standard measures to keep the server data secure as well; use an encrypted channel for communicating with the server (e.g., ssh, not telnet); etc.

  • Statements of what an attacker can do are hard fact. Statements of what an attacker cannot do are subject to things being broken.

The sections below are roughly ordered in ascending order by severity.

Passively observation of encrypted Ensync ssh session

It is likely possible to identify Ensync by its traffic patterns.

The observer can use timing to estimate how many key entries in the key store were rejected. This side-channel does not reduce the strength of passphrase handling below that of having only one passphrase.

The observer can get a reasonably good idea of how many directories are within the tree being synced as well as a rough estimate of how many things have changed based on the traffic quantity.

Connection to ensync server

E.g., the attacker gained access to an ssh session running ensync server.

Fetching the key store (which is cleartext) is trivial.

The encrypted physical root directory can be fetched trivially, which can be used to get a rough estimate of the number of items in the root.

It is also possible to probe for particular directory ids or object ids and get their contents, though finding what these ids are may not be easy.

Impersonating the Ensync server

E.g., man-in-the-middle of an insecure ssh setup.

Includes everything from the above scenarios.

The attacker will learn various directory ids, object ids, as well as the "secret version" ids of some directories which guard write access to those directories.

Assuming the attacker can proxy to the real Ensync server, it can get some information about the hierarchy of directory ids due to the order in which the client requests them.

Access to a dump of the Ensync server data

The attacker learns all directory ids, versions (secret and otherwise) and object ids. This also includes the key store in cleartext. It may be possible to determine how often certain directories are updated.

Combined to access to an Ensync server session, this allows overwriting arbitrary directories with arbitrary data (though garbage since the attacker could not correctly encrypt it without also being able to decrypt the data anyway).

The actual data is still encrypted here, and an attacker would need to determine the internal keys to do anything.

Shell access to the Ensync server data

All of the above. The attacker can, of course, tinker with the server data stored arbitrarily.

However, the attacker cannot manipulate the server data in a way that the clients won't notice. This includes even taking a snapshot of the data and later reverting (in the hopes of causing the clients to revert their own data in response); clients will detect this reversion and refuse to continue.

Compromise of a client (including its Ensync key)

The attacker can read and decrypt everything that the client's key has been granted access to, and write everything that the Ensync server allows. The attacker can determine what the HMAC of particular file blocks would be, and probe the server to see if that content has been stored (even in an area the attacker doesn't otherwise have access to).

Directories with a read key the attacker doesn't have are still safe, as are the objects referenced by them.

Recovering from Leaks

If a passphrase is leaked, but not access to the server, simply replace the passphrase, using ensync key change. The important part here is to ensure that no attacker that knows the passphrase ever sees the Ensync key store at a time that that passphrase was represented in the key store.

If the Ensync key store is leaked, you have a bigger — but not immediate — problem, since changing the passphrase will not change the underlying internal key. That is, the if the attacker can use the key store to derive an internal key in their own time, and when done, that internal key will still be valid.

Provided a sensible passphrase is used, deriving an internal key from a key store should be intractable. You should still change the passphrases so that if they are later leaked too, they cannot be used with the leaked key store. However, if the possibility of the key store being broken in isolation is a concern, you may want to replace the internal keys as well. There is no quick way to do this; essentially, it is a multi-step process:

  • Grab all the data from the server and store it somewhere safe. ensync get can be used for this.

  • Destroy the data on the server.

  • Set the server up again, recreate keys, etc.

  • Put the data onto the new server store. ensync put can be used for this.

  • Remove the server-state.sqlite file from every client's internal.ensync directory. If this is not done, clients will detect the above steps as a possible reversion attack and not proceed.


GLPv3 or later


~173K SLoC