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39 Using Emacs as a Server

Various programs can invoke your choice of editor to edit a particular piece of text. For instance, version control programs invoke an editor to enter version control logs (see Version Control), and the Unix mail utility invokes an editor to enter a message to send. By convention, your choice of editor is specified by the environment variable EDITOR. If you set EDITOR to ‘emacs’, Emacs would be invoked, but in an inconvenient way—by starting a new Emacs process. This is inconvenient because the new Emacs process doesn’t share buffers, a command history, or other kinds of information with any existing Emacs process.

You can solve this problem by setting up Emacs as an edit server, so that it “listens" for external edit requests and acts accordingly. There are various ways to start an Emacs server:

  • Run the command server-start in an existing Emacs process: either type M-x server-start, or put the expression (server-start) in your init file (see Init File). The existing Emacs process is the server; when you exit Emacs, the server dies with the Emacs process.

  • Run Emacs as a daemon, using one of the ‘--daemon’ command-line options. See Initial Options. When Emacs is started this way, it calls server-start after initialization and does not open an initial frame. It then waits for edit requests from clients.

  • If your operating system uses systemd to manage startup, you can automatically start Emacs in daemon mode when you login using the supplied systemd unit file. To activate this:

    systemctl --user enable emacs

    (If your Emacs was installed into a non-standard location, you may need to copy the emacs.service file to a standard directory such as ~/.config/systemd/user/.)

  • An external process can invoke the Emacs server when a connection event occurs upon a specified socket and pass the socket to the new Emacs server process. An instance of this is the socket functionality of systemd: the systemd service creates a socket and listens for connections on it; when emacsclient connects to it for the first time, systemd can launch the Emacs server and hand over the socket to it for servicing emacsclient connections. A setup to use this functionality could be:




    (The emacs.service file described above must also be installed.)

    The ListenStream path will be the path that Emacs listens for connections from emacsclient; this is a file of your choice.

Once an Emacs server is started, you can use a shell command called emacsclient to connect to the Emacs process and tell it to visit a file. You can then set the EDITOR environment variable to ‘emacsclient’, so that external programs will use the existing Emacs process for editing.1

You can run multiple Emacs servers on the same machine by giving each one a unique server name, using the variable server-name. For example, M-x set-variable RET server-name RET "foo" RET sets the server name to ‘foo’. The emacsclient program can specify a server by name, using the ‘-s’ or the ‘-f’ option (see emacsclient Options), depending on whether or not the server uses a TCP socket (see TCP Emacs server).

If you want to run multiple Emacs daemons (see Initial Options), you can give each daemon its own server name like this:

  emacs --daemon=foo

If you have defined a server by a unique server name, it is possible to connect to the server from another Emacs instance and evaluate Lisp expressions on the server, using the server-eval-at function. For instance, (server-eval-at "foo" '(+ 1 2)) evaluates the expression (+ 1 2) on the ‘foo’ server, and returns 3. (If there is no server with that name, an error is signaled.) Currently, this feature is mainly useful for developers.

TCP Emacs server  Listening to a TCP socket.
Invoking emacsclient  Connecting to the Emacs server.
emacsclient Options  Emacs client startup options.

  1. Some programs use a different environment variable; for example, to make TeX use ‘emacsclient’, set the TEXEDIT environment variable to ‘emacsclient +%d %s’.