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Vim as the poor man's sed

Not long ago I wrote about sed, a powerful non-interactive editor that can be used to edit multiple files in a fairly easy way. Today I want to show how we could use vim’s not so well known ex mode to do some of these same tasks, and what are the benefits and shortcomings.

The ex mode

The ex mode is very similar to the command mode: It allows you to enter ex commands. The main difference is that you won’t be back to normal mode after the command is executed. You can enter the ex mode with Q, and go back to normal mode with :visual.

It’s a mode designed for batch processing, and we can start vim with -e, if that’s all we need.

The usage

The usage is very similar to what we did with sed. We just need to give it a file path and a set of commands to be executed:

$ echo "foo bar baz" > testing-ex.txt
$ vim -e testing-ex.txt <<-SCRIPT

The same way, you could just pipe the result of an echo to vim:

# Note that, in vim, "|" is used to execute multiple commands at once:

$ echo "%s/foo/new-value/ | w" | vim -e testing-ex.txt

Or we could just move this script to its own file, and then execute the command as:

$ vim -e testing-ex.txt < command.vim

This script is just a bunch of vim commands, the same commands you would execute if you were editing this file by hand. The only caveat is to remember that you need to save the file (w) in the end.

For comparison, the equivalent sed command would be something like this:

$ sed -i'' -f command.sed testing-ex.txt

The benefit

The benefit is that it’s just vim, and you probably already know the commands to edit a file. If you have a map to do some kind of editing, you are all set, just execute these commands in ex mode. What if you want to join all the lines? Just execute %join, as you would if you were editing a single file.

Check :help ex-cmd-index for the list of all the ex commands available

The shortcomings

I know you thought about that as soon as you read the title of this post: Performance.
And yes, you are right, Vim won’t be that fast if you need to edit a lot of files. Let’s measure that by running the same script that substitutes a string in 10.000 files:

# Creates 10.000 files to test
$ for i in {1..1000}; do echo "test" > $i.txt; done

$ time for i in {1..1000}; do echo "%s/test/new-value/g | w" | vim -e $i.txt; done
# Executes in 22.13s

$ time for i in {1..1000}; do sed -i'' -e 's/test/new-value/g' $i.txt; done
# Executes in 3.12s

In this simple test, sed is about 8x faster.


There is some overlap in what you can do with sed and with vim in ex mode. There is no right or wrong, they are just options, and, as always, it’s important to know the trade offs and when it’s worth to use one option over another.

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