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1.3 What tar Does

The tar program provides the ability to create tar archives, as well as various other kinds of manipulation. For example, you can use tar on previously created archives to extract files, to store additional files, or to update or list files which were already stored.

Initially, tar archives were used to store files conveniently on magnetic tape. The name tar comes from this use; it stands for tape archiver. Despite the utility's name, tar can direct its output to available devices, files, or other programs (using pipes). tar may even access remote devices or files (as archives).

You can use tar archives in many ways. We want to stress a few of them: storage, backup, and transportation.

Storage

Often, tar archives are used to store related files for convenient file transfer over a network. For example, the GNU Project distributes its software bundled into tar archives, so that all the files relating to a particular program (or set of related programs) can be transferred as a single unit.

A magnetic tape can store several files in sequence. However, the tape has no names for these files; it only knows their relative position on the tape. One way to store several files on one tape and retain their names is by creating a tar archive. Even when the basic transfer mechanism can keep track of names, as FTP can, the nuisance of handling multiple files, directories, and multiple links makes tar archives useful.

Archive files are also used for long-term storage. You can think of this as transportation from the present into the future. (It is a science-fiction idiom that you can move through time as well as in space; the idea here is that tar can be used to move archives in all dimensions, even time!)

Backup

Because the archive created by tar is capable of preserving file information and directory structure, tar is commonly used for performing full and incremental backups of disks. A backup puts a collection of files (possibly pertaining to many users and projects) together on a disk or a tape. This guards against accidental destruction of the information in those files. GNU tar has special features that allow it to be used to make incremental and full dumps of all the files in a file system.

Transportation

You can create an archive on one system, transfer it to another system, and extract the contents there. This allows you to transport a group of files from one system to another.


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