Learn Vi As A Network or Sysadmin Today?

TL;DR: If you’re a sysadmin or network administrator who doesn’t know vi/vim, I wouldn’t worry about it. Nano as a Linux/Unix editor will suffice in just about every situation you’re likely to be involved in.

Vi (and its successor, vim) is a text editor commonly used on Unix-like systems like Linux, the BSDs, and MacOS (I’m not getting into a what is/isn’t Unix discussion). If it’s remotely Unix-like, typing “vi” will likely get you vi, vim, or another variant. You can pretty much count on vi being there.

When I started as a Unix admin back in the 1990s, primarily working with Solaris and SunOS, knowing your way around vi is what I would classify as an essential skill. The other editors were pico (easy to learn) and Emacs (very high learning curve). Vi versus Emacs was one of the first technology “religious” wars.

I don’t have much experience with Emacs. I gave it a go in the late 1990s at one point, but found the learning curve too discouraging. Besides, I could already do everything I needed to with vi and Emacs users didn’t seem to be able to do something I couldn’t do. It felt like to me (at the time at least) that the learning curve for Emacs was higher than vi, but that’s a pretty subjective call.

The reasons why I don’t think it’s necessary to learn vi today is based on what we used it for, versus what we need today. So what did we use these editors for?

In the 1990s, servers were bespoke, artisanal, and one of a kind. They were “pets” in the pets vs cattle parlance. You would install a server manually, configure it manually, deploy services on it manually, and maintain it manually. It was common to compile your own Apache and MySQL, for example. All if this involved editing various files. Make files, config files, network ini files, and whatever level of hell that sendmail config files were. For these types of environments, vi was an invaluable tool. The various configurations files (especially the insane configs of sendmail) could be quickly edited. With a few keystrokes you could open a huge config file, page up and down, go to any line number, search for the right parameter, replace it, save, and exit. There was mass search and replace and a lot of tools that we take for granted in a GUI-based editor but didn’t exit in the basic command line text editors.

So if you were slinging servers for a living, vi/vim were invaluable tools.

If you were writing software, vi was a great editor and vim brought color schemes, which would apply one color to variables, another to functions, etc. I did a bit of Bash and Perl for server automation and PHP for some dynamic website tools. Vi/vim was great for this.

But the world of server administration is very different today than it was in the 1990s. Manual configuration is much more limited, instead best practices usually involve some sort of automation such as Ansible. Writing scripts and now playbooks are typically done off a server by some sort of IDE, most notably now VS Code from Microsoft. Same for any kind of software writing.

Any editing that’s done on an actual server is typically very minimal, so the benefits of vim don’t really provide a lot of value. At least it doesn’t provide nearly the return on investment that it did in the 1990s.

Instead, if you find yourself needing to edit on-system, I recommend using the nano editor. Nano is the successor to pico, and is a fairly basic text-based editor. For editing a configuration file or some other text file on a Linux machine or other Unix-like system it’s more than sufficient and can be used without any training.

I’m not discouraging anyone from using vi, Vim, or even Emacs. I’m not even discouraging really anyone from learning those tools. I’m just saying that in a world of lots of stuff to learn I don’t consider them must-needed skills for your typical networking admin or server admin.

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