The blog of David Wickes, software developer

Using Vim as a SQL Server Client

Bad times - having to connect to my company’s SQL Server database in order to migrate data. The last time I looked at that database it was through a connection to a Windows box running the Microsoft development client. Laggy, slow, and an unfamiliar environment.

So what are my options on a Mac? Well, there are a couple of SQL Server clients out there, but the one I tried out turned out to be buggy - there’s nothing less fun than losing a query you’ve been crafting for an hour. And why should I spend time moving the query betweeen an editor (Vi) and an awkward GUI interface?

Screw that - let’s do it in Vim! This method has been tested on my Mac, but should also work for another *nix based system. No guarantees though.

The Tools

To do this we need:

And we will be using the following tools to do that:

We’ll start with a simple example - connecting dbext to a local instance of PostgreSQL.

dbext with PostgreSQL

Install dbext into Vim using whichever package manager or other you like. Dbext is a ‘proper’ Vim extension, in that it comes with extensive documentation in the form of Vim helpfiles. Access the full help with :h dbext and check out the tutorial at :h dbext-tutorial.

If even the tutorial is fast enough, here’s a quick start for PostgreSQL locally. Let’s assume you’ve already installed PostgreSQL, and that you’ve not added any usernames or passwords. Somewhere in your Vim initialization files (like ~/.vimrc) add the following line:

let g:dbext_default_profile_local_PSQL = 'type=PGSQL'

Here we’ve set up a local profile for PostgreSQL, called it local_PSQL, and told dbext that the type of connection this profile will use is, well, Postgres. Now either restart Vim or evaluate that command in your current session.

To use this profile with some SQL in Vim, first put some SQL into a buffer. Try this: SELECT * FROM bob. Then, in the buffer, send the command :DBPromptForBufferParameters. You’ll get a menu with the local_PSQL option on it. Select that option (probably option 1).

Now have a crack at running a query - put your cursor on the line with the SQL statement on it and execute the query with the command <Leader>sel (sql execute line).

This won’t work, but should give you a hint about what’s going wrong: PostgreSQL needs a [.pgpass] file for the password to the database - even if there isn’t a password(!). So just create an empty file called .pgpass in your $HOME directory. Now it should work (or at least return a reasonable error message if your default database doesn’t have a bob table).

Now… go crazy! Dbext is great - read some of the docs in full and have a play with some SQL queries. Ah, the joy of Vim! Come back when you want to hook it up to a remote SQL Server.

SQL Server on Mac

Had fun? Right, this bit is a bit of a drag. Macs (and other *nix systems) have no native support for TDS, the protocol by which we talk to SQL Server databases. So we’ll have to install a library called freetds.

But before we do that we’ll need to install an ODBC driver as the freetds library does not provide sufficiently sophisticated binaries for dbext to use to query a database directly.1

First up we’ll install unixodbc - I’m using Homebrew, but if you’d like to build your own binaries be my guest.

brew install unixodbc

And now that’s done, let’s get hold of freetds

brew install freetds --with-unixodbc --with-msdblib

We’re asking for freetds to be installed with unixodbc support, and telling it that we want it to use the version of TDS that Microsoft developed for SQL Server.2

If you’d like to test the installation, freetds comes with a couple of command line tools you can use to connect to a SQL Server DB. Run tsql with the appropriate server, port, username and password passed in as options and check to see if you can connect. Have a bit more of a play around if you can - you’ve earned it.

Perl: DBI and DBD::ODBC

The final step is to get dbext talking to the ODBC installation. And it wants to do this through a pair of Perl libraries. We’ll install these using CPAN, the Perl equivalent of RubyGems or NPM.3 First start the interactive interface as the super user:

sudo perl -MCPAN -e shell

And then install the libraries we need:

install DBI
install DBD::ODBC

Both of these will output a scarily verbose amount of logs - it’s ok, it’s normal4 - and by the end of it we’ve got everything installed that we’ll need. Almost there. Almost…

Configuration files

Getting freetds and unixodbc working together happily is super simple - but it took me a while to work out exactly what was needed. Configuration for freetds can live either in its own configuration file, or with the ODBC configuration. The simplest thing to do is to push the configuration over to the ODBC side entirely.

What we’re looking to do it to tell ODBC that there is a sort of database called ‘freeTDS’ and to point it to where the files that describe the protocol live - this is the database ‘driver’, just like a printer driver. Then we need to give ODBC the details of the specific database we want to connect to - think of this as the specific printer you connect to using a printer driver, the network address etc.

The first step is to register freetds as a driver with unixodbc - this is done in a file called odbcinst.ini which Homebrew has (hopefully) symlinked into /usr/local/etc/odbcinst.ini5. And in that file we put the following:

Description = TD Driver (MSSQL)
Driver = /usr/local/lib/
Setup = /usr/local/lib/
FileUsage = 1

The top line is the name we’re giving the driver, the second a human-friendly description of what it does. Thee next two lines give ODBC the driver and set up information - was installed with the freeTDS installation and put in /usr/local/lib as a symlink by Homebrew (again, hopefully).

That’s the driver bit done. Now let’s point ODBC to your SQL Server database by adding its details to the ~/.odbc.ini file, which you’ll have to create.6 Put the following in there:

Driver = FreeTDS
Server = <ip or domain name goes here>
Database = <database name goes here>
Port = <port number>

This connection information is called a DSN7, and we’ll be using it in dbext. Replace MyMSSQLDB with something more descriptive - it’s the name of the connection to your database that ODBC (and, by extension, dbext) will use.

Success! One more small step to go

ODBC in dbext

Now we’ve got an ODBC connection to play with, it’s time to put its details into dbext. This can bedone by putting the following into your .vimrc - right next to where you declared your PostgreSQL connection information.

let g:dbext_default_profile_MyMSSQLDB = 'type=ODBC:user=<username>:passwd=<password>:dsnname=MyMSSQLDB'8

Pretty long, right? But comprehendible. We’re giving similar information to that which we used for the PostgreSQL connection, only we’re declaring that the type is ODBC, and we’re declaring the DSN name that we’re using as well.

And that’s it. Restart your Vim Session, <Leader>sbp (it’s the same as :DBPromptForBufferParameters) and pick MyMSSQLDB (feel free to give it a better name later). You can now evaluate lines of SQL against the database, and see the return value in a separate split below.


Description = TD Driver (MSSQL)
Driver = /usr/local/lib/
Setup = /usr/local/lib/
FileUsage = 1
Driver = FreeTDS
Server = <ip or domain name goes here>
Database = <database name goes here>
Port = <port number>

  1. My details are fuzzy at best, but as far as I can see the osql and tsql bins that come with freetds are not set up for interactive querying, and can’t be used in the same way that, say, osql on a Windows machine would work.
  2. Even when making their own standard, M$ can’t help but diverge from it.
  3. Or Maven or whatever.
  4. CPAN is running all the tests on each of the modules. Bit excessive I know.
  5. This inforamation can also be added using the odbcinst tool, But this way seems easier to me. Read more about these files in the unixODBC documentation here
  6. ODBC will also look in /usr/local/etc/odbc.ini for DSNs, but these will be available to all users. So we’re putting them in the local user file it checks, ~/.odbc.ini.
  7. Data Source Name - just so you know.
  8. The connection information used here can include the database, but we’ve pushed that part down to the DSN defined above. It must always include the username and passwd from what I’ve seen through experimentation.