Vim vs. Emacs: The Working Directory

Vim and Emacs have different internals models for the current working directory, and these models influence the overall workflow for each editor. They decide how files are opened, how shell commands are executed, and how the build system is operated. These effects even reach outside the editor to influence the overall structure of the project being edited.

In the traditional unix model, which was eventually adopted everywhere else, each process has a particular working directory tracked by the operating system. When a process makes a request to the operating system using a relative path — a path that doesn’t begin with a slash — the operating system uses the process’ working directory to convert the path into an absolute path. When a process forks, its child starts in the same directory. A process can change its working directory at any time using chdir(2), though most programs never need to do it. The most obvious way this system call is exposed to regular users is through the shell’s built-in cd command.

Vim’s spiritual heritage is obviously rooted in vi, one of the classic unix text editors, and the most elaborate text editor standardized by POSIX. Like vi, Vim closely follows the unix model for working directories. At any given time Vim has exactly one working directory. Shell commands that are run within Vim will start in Vim’s working directory. Like a shell, the cd ex command changes and queries Vim’s working directory.

Emacs eschews this model and instead each buffer has its own working directory tracked using a buffer-local variable, default-directory. Emacs internally simulates working directories for its buffers like an operating system, resolving absolute paths itself, giving credence to the idea that Emacs is an operating system (“lacking only a decent editor”). Perhaps this model comes from ye olde lisp machines?

In contrast, Emacs’ M-x cd command manipulates the local variable and has no effect on the Emacs process’ working directory. In fact, Emacs completely hides its operating system working directory from Emacs Lisp. This can cause some trouble if that hidden working directory happens to be sitting on filesystem you’d like to unmount.

Vim can be configured to simulate Emacs’ model with its autochdir option. When set, Vim will literally chdir(2) each time the user changes buffers, switches windows, etc. To the user, this feels just like Emacs’ model, but this is just a convenience, and the core working directory model is still the same.

Single instance editors

For most of my Emacs career, I’ve stuck to running a single, long-lived Emacs instance no matter how many different tasks I’m touching simultaneously. I start the Emacs daemon shortly after logging in, and it continues running until I log out — typically only when the machine is shut down. It’s common to have multiple Emacs windows (frames) for different tasks, but they’re all bound to the same daemon process.

While with care it’s possible to have a complex, rich Emacs configuration that doesn’t significantly impact Emacs’ startup time, the general consensus is that Emacs is slow to start. But since it has a really solid daemon, this doesn’t matter: hardcore Emacs users only ever start Emacs occasionally. The rest of the time they’re launching emacsclient and connecting to the daemon. Outside of system administration, it’s the most natural way to use Emacs.

The case isn’t so clear for Vim. Vim is so fast that many users fire it up on demand and exit when they’ve finished the immediate task. At the other end of the spectrum, others advocate using a single instance of Vim like running a single Emacs daemon. In my initial dive into Vim, I tried the single-instance, Emacs way of doing things. I set autochdir out of necessity and pretended each buffer had its own working directory.

At least for me, this isn’t the right way to use Vim, and it all comes down to working directories. I want Vim to be anchored at the project root with one Vim instance per project. Everything is smoother when it happens in the context of the project’s root directory, from opening files, to running shell commands (ctags in particular), to invoking the build system. With autochdir, these actions are difficult to do correctly, particularly the last two.

Invoking the build

I suspect the Emacs’ model of per-buffer working directories has, in a Sapir-Whorf sort of way, been responsible for leading developers towards poorly-designed, recursive Makefiles. Without a global concept of working directory, it’s inconvenient to invoke the build system (M-x compile) in some particular grandparent directory that is the root of the project. If each directory has its own Makefile, it usually makes sense to invoke make in the same directory as the file being edited.

Over the years I’ve been reinventing the same solution to this problem, and it wasn’t until I spent time with Vim and its alternate working directory model that I truly understood the problem. Emacs itself has long had a solution lurking deep in its bowels, unseen by daylight: dominating files. The function I’m talking about is locate-dominating-file:

(locate-dominating-file FILE NAME)

Look up the directory hierarchy from FILE for a directory containing NAME. Stop at the first parent directory containing a file NAME, and return the directory. Return nil if not found. Instead of a string, NAME can also be a predicate taking one argument (a directory) and returning a non-nil value if that directory is the one for which we’re looking.

The trouble of invoking the build system at the project root is that Emacs doesn’t really have a concept of a project root. It doesn’t know where it is or how to find it. The vi model inherited by Vim is to leave the working directory at the project root. While Vim can simulate Emacs’ working directory model, Emacs cannot (currently) simulate Vim’s model.

Instead, by identifying a file name unique to the project’s root (i.e. a “dominating” file) such as Makefile or build.xml, then locate-dominating-file can discover the project root. All that’s left is wrapping M-x compile so that default-directory is temporarily adjusted to the project’s root.

That looks very roughly like this (and needs more work):

(defun my-compile ()
  (let ((default-directory (locate-dominating-file "." "Makefile")))
    (compile "make")))

It’s a pattern I’ve used again and again and again, working against the same old friction. By running one Vim instance per project at the project’s root, I get the correct behavior for free.

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Chris Wellons