Edit files as root

One area where Emacs traditionally falls short by default is editing files that require root permissions. Since most Emacs users just use a single Emacs frame they never leave, they have the problem of having started it with their current user’s privileges (and it’s unlikely this user is root). In this post I’ll describe two ways to alleviate that particular problem (note that emacsclient users have other options to pick from as well - one is mentioned at the very end of the post).

Option A

Here’s Option A - a simple command that allows you to reopen the currently visited file with root permissions (obtained via tramp and sudo) and prompts you for a file name if you’re not currently visiting a file or supply a prefix argument:

(defun er-sudo-edit (&optional arg)
  "Edit currently visited file as root.

With a prefix ARG prompt for a file to visit.
Will also prompt for a file to visit if current
buffer is not visiting a file."
  (interactive "P")
  (if (or arg (not buffer-file-name))
      (find-file (concat "/sudo:root@localhost:"
                         (ido-read-file-name "Find file(as root): ")))
    (find-alternate-file (concat "/sudo:root@localhost:" buffer-file-name))))

I came across a similar command a few years back and it’s been pretty useful to me ever since. If you like it, I’d suggest binding it to C-x C-r (kind of like find-file’s binding C-x C-f).

(global-set-key (kbd "C-x C-r") #'er-sudo-edit)

Option B

Lately I’ve decided that such a command is a bit of an overhead, since we can check the file permissions automatically anyways. While I’m not quite fond of advising commands (debugging advised commands is no fun) this was an excellent opportunity to exploit them (for great good):

(defadvice ido-find-file (after find-file-sudo activate)
  "Find file as root if necessary."
  (unless (and buffer-file-name
               (file-writable-p buffer-file-name))
    (find-alternate-file (concat "/sudo:root@localhost:" buffer-file-name))))

This advises ido-find-file (you might want to advise find-file instead if you’re not using ido) to reopen the selected file as root (you’ll be prompted for your sudo password) if you don’t have write permissions for it. Extremely cool!

The first command has been part of Prelude since forever. As of late, the ido-find-file advice is also present there and it generally voids the need for er-sudo-edit.

Option C

emacsclient users have it easy. They just need the following shell alias (I generally alias e to emacsclient -t):

alias E="SUDO_EDITOR=\"emacsclient -t -a emacs\" sudoedit"

This should (will) finally save you from reaching for vim in the terminal!