Time Machine on Samba with ZFS

Time Machine is Apple’s in-built backup system for MacOS. It’s probably the best consumer backup option, which really achieves “set and forget” backups.

It can backup to an external hard disk on a dock, an Apple Time Machine (wireless access point), or a custom location based on SMB shares.

Since I have a fileserver at home, I use this as my Time Machine backup target. To make this work really smoothly there are a few setup steps.

MacOS Time Machine Performance

By default timemachine operates as a low priority process. You can set a sysctl to improve the performance of this (especially helpful for a first backup!)

sysctl -w debug.lowpri_throttle_enabled=0

You will need a launchd script to make this setting survive a reboot.


I’m using ZFS on my server, which is probably the best filesystem available. To make Time Machine work well on ZFS there are a number of tuning options that can help. As these backups write and read many small files, you should have a large amount of RAM for ARC (best) or a ZIL on nvme. RAID 10 will likely work better than RAIDZ here as you need better seek latency than write throughput due to the need to access many small files. Generally time machine is very “IO demanding”.

For the ZFS properties on the filesystem I created it with the following options to zfs create. Each once is set with -o attribute=value

atime: off
dnodesize: auto
xattr: sa
logbias: throughput
recordsize: 1M
compression: zstd-10 | zle
refquota: 3T
# optional - greatly improves write performance
sync: disabled
# security
setuid: off
exec: off
devices: off

The important ones here are the compression setting. If you choose zle, you gain much faster write performance, but you dont get much in the way of compression. zstd-10 gives me about 1.3x compression, but at the loss of performance. Generally the decision is based on your pool and storage capacity.

Also note the use of refquota instead of quota. This applies the quota to this filesystem only excluding snapshots - if you use quota, the space taken by snapshots it also applied to this filesystem, which may cause you to run out of space.

You may optionally choose to disable sync. This is because Time Machine issues a sync after every single file write to the server, which can cause low performance with many small files. To mitigate the data loss risk here, I snapshot the backups filesystem hourly.

If you want to encrypt at the ZFS level instead of through time machine you need to enable this as you create the filesystem.

# create a key file to unlock the zfs filesystem
openssl rand -hex -out /root/key 32

# Add the following settings during zfs create:
-o encryption=aes-128-gcm -o keyformat=hex -o keylocation=file:///root/key

If you add any subvolumes, you need to repeat the same encryption steps during the create of these subvolumes.

For example a create may look like:

zfs create \
    -o encryption=aes-128-gcm -o keyformat=hex -o keylocation=file:///root/key \
    -o atime=off -o dnodesize=auto -o xattr=sa -o logbias=throughput \
    -o recordsize=1M -o compression=zle -o refquota=3T -o sync=disabled \
    -o setuid=off -o exec=off -o devices=off tank/backups


In smb.conf you define the share that exposes the timemachine backup location. You need to set additional metadata on this so that macos will recognise it correctly.

comment = Time Machine
path = /var/data/backup/timemachine_a
browseable = yes
write list = timemachine
create mask = 0600
directory mask = 0700
spotlight = no
vfs objects = catia fruit streams_xattr
fruit:aapl = yes
fruit:time machine = yes
fruit:time machine max size = 1050G
durable handles = yes
kernel oplocks = no
kernel share modes = no
posix locking = no
# NOTE: Changing these will require a new initial backup cycle if you already have an existing
# timemachine share.
case sensitive = true
default case = lower
preserve case = no
short preserve case = no

The fruit settings are required to help Time Machine understand that this share is usable for it. Most of the durable settings are related to performance improvement to help minimise file locking and to improve throughput. These are “safe” only because we know that this volume is ALSO not accessed or manipulated by any other process or nfs at the same time.

I have also added a custom timemachine user to smbpasswd, and created a matching posix account who should own these files.


You can now add this to MacOS via system preferences. If your ZFS volume is NOT encyrpted, you should add the timemachine volume via system preferences, as it is the only way to enable encryption of the time machine backup. For system preferences to “see” the samba share you may need to mount it manually via finder as the time machine user.

If you are using ZFS encryption, you can add the time machine backup from the command line instead.

tmutil setdestination smb://timemachine:password@hostname/timemachine_a

If you intend to have multiple time machine targets, MacOS is capable of mirroring between multilple stripes alternately. You can append the second stripe with (note the -a). You could do this with other shares (offsite for example) or with a HDD on your desk.

tmutil setdestination -a smb://timemachine:password@hostname/timemachine_b