File transfer

Summary: use rsync for file transfer

For file transfer to/from and between compute and storage systems (Betzy, Fram, Saga, NIRD), we recommend rsync. This tool is often faster than scp (for many small files and it does not copy files that are already there) and potentially also safer against accidental file overwrites. For more details, see Advantages over scp and similar tools.

When using rsync, there is no need to zip/tar files first.

On Windows, many other tools exist (WinSCP, FileZilla, MobaXterm, and others), but we recommend to use rsync through Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL).

Transferring files between your computer and a compute cluster or storage resource

This is a good starting point but below we will explain what these components and options mean:

$ rsync --info=progress2 -a file-name      username@cluster:receiving-directory
$ rsync --info=progress2 -a directory-name/ username@cluster:receiving-directory/directory-name
  • --info=progress2: This will show progress (how many percent, how much time left). You can also leave it out if you don’t need to know how far the copying is. There is also a --progress option but that one will show progress for each file individually and often you rather want to know the overall progress.

  • file-name or directory-name: These are on your computer and you want to transfer them to the receiving server.

  • -a: Preserves ownership and time stamp and includes the -r option which copies folders recursively.

  • username: Your username on the remote cluster. If your usernames on your local computer and on the remote resource are the same, you can leave out the username@ part.

  • cluster: The remote server. For example:

  • receiving-directory: The directory on the remote server which will receive the file(s) and/or directories.

If you want to make sure that rsync does not overwrite files that are newer on the receiving end, add the --update option.

If you want to rsync between two computers that both offer an SSH connection, note that then you can use rsync both ways: from cluster A to cluster B, but also the reverse.

rsync directory

Please note that there is a trailing slash (/) at the end of the first argument in the syntax of the second command, while rsync directories, ie:

rsync --info=progress2 -a directory-name/ username@cluster:receiving-directory/directory-name

This trailing slash (/) signifies the contents of the directory directory-name. The outcome would create a hierarchy like the following on your cluster:


Without the trailing slash,directory-name, including the directory, would be placed within your receiving directory. The outcome without the trailing slash (/) at the first argument in the above command, ie:

rsync --info=progress2 -a directory-name username@cluster:receiving-directory/directory-name

would create a hierarchy like the following on your cluster:


rsync using compression

If you have a strong CPU at both ends of the line, and you’re on a slow network, you can save bandwidth by compressing the data with the -z flag:

$ rsync --info=progress2 -az file-name      username@cluster:receiving-directory
$ rsync --info=progress2 -az directory-name username@cluster:receiving-directory/directory-name

Problem with many small files

Many small files are often not great for the transfer (although rsync does not seem to mind but for scp this can make a big difference, see below). Many tiny files are often also a problem for parallel file systems. If you develop programs for high-performance computing, avoid using very many tiny files.

Advantages over scp and similar tools

  • rsync will not transfer files if they already exist and do not differ.

  • With rsync --update you can avoid accidentally overwriting newer files in the destination directory.

  • You can use compression for file transfer.

  • Resumes interrupted transfers.

  • More flexibility and better cross-platform support.

Typically people recommend scp for file transfer and we have also done this in the past. But let us here compare scp with rsync. In this example I tried to transfer a 100 MB file from my home computer (not on the fast university network) to a cluster, either as one large file or split into 5000 smaller files.

For one or few files it does not matter:

$ scp file.txt username@cluster:directory
# 81 sec

$ rsync --info=progress2 -a file.txt username@cluster:directory
# 79 sec

$ rsync --info=progress2 -az file.txt username@cluster:directory
# 61 sec

However, it can matter a lot if you want to transfer many small files. Notice how the transfer takes 10 times longer with scp:

$ scp -r many-files username@cluster:directory
# 833 sec

$ rsync --info=progress2 -a many-files username@cluster:directory/many-files
# 81 sec

$ rsync --info=progress2 -az many-files username@cluster:directory/many-files
# 62 sec

In the above example, scp struggles with many small files but rsync does not seem to mind. For scp we would have to first tar/zip the small files to one large file but for rsync we don’t have to.

How was the test data created?

Just in case anybody wants to try the above example on their own, we used this script to generate the example data:

#/usr/bin/env bash

# create a file that is 100 MB large
base64 /dev/urandom | head -c 100000000 > file.txt

# split into 5000 smaller files
mkdir -p many-files
cd many-files
split -n 5000 ../file.txt

Transferring files between Betzy/Fram/Saga and NIRD

Since NIRD is mounted on the login nodes of Betzy, Fram, and Saga, one can use regular cp or mv commands on the cluster login nodes to copy or move files into or out of the NIRD project areas.

For more information, please check out the page about Storage areas on HPC clusters.

What to do if rsync is not fast enough?

Disk speed, meta-data performance, network speed, and firewall speed may limit the transfer bandwidth.

If you have access to a network with a large bandwidth and you are sure that you are limited by the one rsync process and not by something else, you can start multiple rsync processes, by piping a list of paths to xargs or parallel which launches multiple rsync instances in parallel. But please mind that this way you can saturate the network bandwidth for other users and also saturate the login node with rsync processes or overwhelm the file system. If you have to transfer large amount of data and one rsync process is not enough, we recommend that you talk to us first: Getting help.

Please also plan for it: If you need to transfer large amount of data, don’t start on the last day of your project. Data transfer may take hours or even days.

Troubleshooting: “Broken pipe” error during transfer

The organization which provides the network to the clusters, may perform daily housekeeping of their DNS and then the connection from outside to the NRIS services can drop. This can cause a “broken pipe” error during file transfer from outside.

One way to avoid this, especially while copying large datasets, is to use IP addresses instead of domain names.

One way to get the IP of one of the login nodes (example: Saga):

$ nslookup