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Maybe I’m just an old Unix hack…

Posted by Preston on 2009-12-13

In the land of Dilbert, I’d probably be obligated to wear suspenders and have my socks pulled up past my knees, but ultimately I think I’m becoming an old Unix hack. Why?

  • Not because of my disdain for Windows. (Though that probably helps.)
  • Not because of my passion for Linux. (I have little in that regard.)
  • Not because of my rigid adherence to a particular Unix platform. (Used to be Solaris, now Mac OS X.)
  • Because of my ongoing use of vi.

I’ve been using Mac OS X now since 2005. The date is fairly well fixed in my head simply because it happened about a month after 10.4 (Tiger) was released. It’s also fixed in my head since I’ve never been as productive on a computer as I am on a Mac.

The Mac has changed a lot of my workflows, but the one thing that it hasn’t changed is the absolute automatic way I lunge for vi whenever I need to edit text, source code, etc. Now, I’ll admit I have the absolutely fantastic BBEdit program from Bare Bones Software. I even use it a lot of the time for in-depth coding across a lot of files. I’d certainly recommend anyone doing lots of software development on the Mac outside of Xcode to buy a license.

But it’s never what I open first when I need to edit a file. There’s something so spartan and uncomplicated about vi. (Which incidentally is probably why emacs just never appealed. It was never spartan or uncomplicated – at least in my opinion.)

I know it’s arcane. The idea of a editor mode and a control mode freaks a lot of people out. The use of freaky control commands that make WordStar look like the Paragon of User Interface Design take a lot of getting used to. Yet, whenever I’m in Word, or OpenOffice*, or even BBEdit, I still find myself automatically trying to type in vi search and replace commands. (Hint to any Bare Bones product manager that stumbles across this. Please please, pretty please, can we get a “vi” mode in BBEdit?)

To me, and I know a lot of Mac users out there will probably have a conniption in response to what I’m going to say: vi is a lot like Mac OS X. It’s like a butler. It doesn’t jump up and down and pester you every 5 minutes (like Windows) about what you want to do, or that you’ve got an icon not being used on your desktop, or that a new network was found, or any other garbage like that. It just hangs back, lets you work, and jumps to your assistance when you want it.

Call me an old Unix hack if you want, but I can’t go a day without vi. Being able to do things such as the following:

(esc) :.,$s/^/insert into blah(x) values(‘/

(esc) :.,$s/$/’);/

Is for some reason vitally important to my ability to work productively. Heck, I even use vi in NetWorker, thanks to default editor settings and nsradmin‘s response to the keyword ‘edit’ on Unix platforms.

I think every technical person who works on heterogenous systems should learn vi. It’s pretty much the one interactive editor you can guarantee being available on every Unix system. (Discounting ‘ed’, and disrespecting emacs ;-) ) I can also guarantee that anyone who has used vi for more than 5 minutes and successfully saved a document can navigate around the user interface behaviours of the Windows default editor, ‘notepad’, or the Mac OS X default editor, ‘Text Edit’. The same isn’t in reverse, and I find that a lot of say, Windows admins who start doing bits and pieces of work on Unix systems are usually hampered by the entire vi experience. vi, it seems, is suitably foreign to people who grow up in GUI only environments that it taints the entire Unix interactivity process. However, being an old Unix hack, I don’t think this is vi‘s fault. Indeed, I’d suggest that anyone who can’t type “vi quick reference card” into Google and then use the results productively is doing themselves a disservice.

If you’re a Windows admin and you’ve just assumed I’m having a dig at you for not knowing vi, I’m not. Like knowing a cross platform scripting language (e.g,. perl), I merely recommend that administrators in heterogenous environments enjoy their job more, and can do their job more easily, if they know vi.

Oh, and as a final point, can someone please explain why almost everyone else on the planet except me seems to save and quit in vi either through multiple actions or more obscure commands (e.g., esc :wq) than just:

(esc) :x


* And if someone could explain the arrogance of having OpenOffice on the Mac takeover all possible document types whenever it is first run, I’ll be very interested in rebutting your arguments.

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3 Responses to “Maybe I’m just an old Unix hack…”

  1. Eddi said

    you know, I totally agree with you on all counts.
    vi/vim is a superior cli text editor by far..
    and no, its not a question of being an old *nix hack, but simply elegance and knowing what works.

    that is all

  2. I use ‘vi’ all the time, too, and I wonder how people get along without it.

  3. Andrew said

    I also use vi all the time, and refuse to learn emacs, or any other editor that runs on unix…but I have got use to a number of the improvements of vim, which one quickly notices on a Solaris box that is still using vi.

    As for using :wq instead of :x I think back to when someone first explain saving and quitting to me, w writes and q quits, they can be together or separate… x only saves and quits, I think when explaining vi for the first time wq gives more for less explanation. Sometimes I use ZZ but that doesn’t help when editing read-only files. Also a quick search of the net, very few vi reference guides use :x, most use either :wq or ZZ

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