PSQL_EDITOR: Fighting with Sublime Text under Windows

01.2020 / Category: / Tags: |

PSQL_EDITOR question

This is a How-To blog about the PSQL_EDITOR variable. While trying to figure out all possible pitfalls, I've somehow managed to write a full blog post. You may skip to the summary though. All tests were done on Windows 10 with PostgreSQL 12 installed.

As you know, PostgreSQL ships with an interactive console tool named psql, which allows you to use a lot of enhanced features, like watching, for example. There is a lot of information about tweaking psql in POSIX environments. Still, there is a lack of such tips for Windows users. If you, my dear reader, are a Linux user, I'm sure you will also find this information useful anyway. Who knows what Microsoft's next purchase will be? After LinkedIn, GitHub, and Citus, you cannot be sure anymore! ­čśë

The Sublime text processor for the PSQL_EDITOR variable

I've chosen Sublime as a target because it's not a simple console or single window application, but rather an advanced text processor with enhanced file handling, e.g. it restores unsaved files on startup.

PSQL_EDITOR - an environment variable

According to the manual PSQL_EDITOR, EDITOR and VISUAL are environment variables, which are used inside psql to call an editor for input.

Let's try to set the environment variable then.

As you can see, nothing was executed after the first e command, even though I've edited and saved the content of the query.
What's wrong here? First of all, I've used subl.exe instead of sublime.exe, which is special command line tool:

Sublime Text includes a command line tool, subl, to work with files on the command line. This can be used to open files and projects in Sublime Text, and also works as an EDITOR for unix tools, such as git and subversion.

psql runs the editor and then waits for the editor process to finish. But subl is a special tool, which in fact launches sublime.exe and then just dies. So psql gets a signal about subl, finishes and returns, but the temp file hasn't even been edited yet.

Next time you try to execute e, it reports on the temp file's existence.

Let's check the Sublime documentation:

Specifying -w will cause the subl command to not exit until the file is closed.

But the problem is: we cannot pass additional command line options in Windows:

Let's try to examine the psql sources to find out if we can set PSQL_EDITOR to an arbitrary command line:

You can see now why we cannot include any arguments in the PSQL_EDITOR. It's quoted by default before execution on Windows.

The only additional environment variable available to configure editing is PSQL_EDITOR_LINENUMBER_ARG, but that won't help us here.

Of course, we may use just sublime_text.exe:

This approach has one definite disadvantage. You need to close the Sublime editor, not only the tab with the file if you want to continue to work with psql. Assuming we're usually working with a lot of files simultaneously, that is a huge problem.

To keep all the advantages of Sublime Text, you may create a simple batch script in the home folder:

It works like a charm! You've just closed the tab and continued working with psql normally.

The SET command vs. setenv

In the screenshot above, you may see a very common error people constantly make. They try to set EDITOR inside psql and use the SET command for that. SET is used for internal psql variables; to work with environment variables, you should use the setenv command. But this time, make sure you use proper quoting:


1. PSQL_EDITOR is the environment variable controlled by the shell. You should set it before calling psql or inside psql with the special command setenv
2. There are several synonyms available: PSQL_EDITOR, EDITOR, VISUAL
3. In Windows you cannot use an arbitrary shell command as a PSQL_EDITOR value, only the name or full path of the proper file (binary, batch, .cmd, etc), due to forced quoting within psql
4. If you need some complex command to be used, use a script for that (cmd, powershell) or create a shortcut with proper arguments.

To find out more about psql, see our other psql blogs here.

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