How to Skip Learning vi Editor

I got to learn basic vi/vim editor the hard way many years ago reviewing Cisco PIX firewall logs and setting up jailed FTP sites on SuSE linux, so I’m in the cool club. But there are tasks that I sometimes need to do on larger files that become a bit of a pain to look up “how to do xxxx in vi” for 2 seconds of IT Glory – and then promptly forget how to do it till you have to look it up again…

Enter the cheatcode: WinSCP.

WinSCP is pretty well known for being able to do secure file copy using SSH/FTPS between Windows and Linux/SSH capable computer systems. What some may not know is that it can invoke Windows Notepad or use it’s own Internal Editor to edit files on the remote system. So, instead of using an SSH client, like puTTY, and clumsily fumble around with vi/vim to enable edit mode, make sure your emulation is correct, make changes without hitting the backspace key and remember the keystrokes to write/save/quit (seen below), you can use a much more friendly GUI text editor to get your work done!

Here’s what vi looks like via puTTY session. Not very descriptive, unless you have a vi User’s Guide handy and have some time on your hands to get all the commands right.

Leveraging WinSCP for text file viewing/editing is pretty simple, let’s walk through this.

1. First thing (after installing WinSCP) is connecting to a system that has SSH already enabled. Start up WinSCP and it’ll prompt you for what system you want to connect to. Just type in the IP address or FQDN of the system, User Name and Password, then “Login”, very similar to puTTY.

2. Your local file system will be displayed on the left side of the window, but our item of interest is on the right side of the window – the remote file system. With the Commander-type interface, you can navigate very easily without a lot of ‘cd’, ‘ls’ and ‘cd ..’ commands in puTTY to get around the file system. The target system I connected to is a VMWare ESXi host and I want to check out ‘\var\log\vmkwarning.log’ file to look for errors.

Just like in Windows, you double-click on the folders to navigate down the folder structure. Once we’re at \var\log folder, scroll down to find ‘vmkwarning.log’ and right-click on it. There several file operations you can do on the file including download to your system, duplicate the file on the remote file system (like a backup copy) and you can Edit the file using Notepad or the Internal Editor that comes with WinSCP. For our example, we’ll use good ol’ Notepad to do our log review.

Once opened, it works just like a windows hosted text document and in a quite familiar and useable GUI interface where you can scroll around, use your mouse and do searches for key words. Let’s look for the phrase ‘error’ to see what we find.

Aside from doing finds, you have the whole toolbelt of Notepad features to use on files: search/replace, cut/copy/paste, etc.

How to Make & Save changes

Along with doing log review, we can also make edits to files and save them back to the remote system. For instance, we need to make an edit to the hosts file on a system to hard-set an IP to FQDN mapping (in case DNS has failed or isn’t reliably reachable). Just change or add the information needed in the file and then hit “File : Save” to save the changes back on the remote host. Just that simple!

I hope this has been helpful for those that are vi challenged, or just don’t know anything about vi editor. Many of my customers that are new to VMWare and Linux are surprised & pleased to learn about this workaround.

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