You can implement special handling for certain file names. This is called making those names magic. The principal use for this feature is in implementing access to remote files (see Remote Files in The GNU Emacs Manual).
To define a kind of magic file name, you must supply a regular expression to define the class of names (all those that match the regular expression), plus a handler that implements all the primitive Emacs file operations for file names that match.
file-name-handler-alist holds a list of handlers,
together with regular expressions that determine when to apply each
handler. Each element has this form:
(regexp . handler)
All the Emacs primitives for file access and file name transformation
check the given file name against
the file name matches regexp, the primitives handle that file by
The first argument given to handler is the name of the primitive, as a symbol; the remaining arguments are the arguments that were passed to that primitive. (The first of these arguments is most often the file name itself.) For example, if you do this:
and filename has handler handler, then handler is called like this:
(funcall handler 'file-exists-p filename)
When a function takes two or more arguments that must be file names, it checks each of those names for a handler. For example, if you do this:
(expand-file-name filename dirname)
then it checks for a handler for filename and then for a handler for dirname. In either case, the handler is called like this:
(funcall handler 'expand-file-name filename dirname)
The handler then needs to figure out whether to handle filename or dirname.
If the specified file name matches more than one handler, the one whose match starts last in the file name gets precedence. This rule is chosen so that handlers for jobs such as uncompression are handled first, before handlers for jobs such as remote file access.
Here are the operations that a magic file name handler gets to handle:
insert-file-contents typically need to clear the
buffer’s modified flag, with
(set-buffer-modified-p nil), if the
visit argument is non-
nil. This also has the effect of
unlocking the buffer if it is locked.
The handler function must handle all of the above operations, and possibly others to be added in the future. It need not implement all these operations itself—when it has nothing special to do for a certain operation, it can reinvoke the primitive, to handle the operation in the usual way. It should always reinvoke the primitive for an operation it does not recognize. Here’s one way to do this:
(defun my-file-handler (operation &rest args) ;; First check for the specific operations ;; that we have special handling for. (cond ((eq operation 'insert-file-contents) …) ((eq operation 'write-region) …) … ;; Handle any operation we don’t know about. (t (let ((inhibit-file-name-handlers (cons 'my-file-handler (and (eq inhibit-file-name-operation operation) inhibit-file-name-handlers))) (inhibit-file-name-operation operation)) (apply operation args)))))
When a handler function decides to call the ordinary Emacs primitive for
the operation at hand, it needs to prevent the primitive from calling
the same handler once again, thus leading to an infinite recursion. The
example above shows how to do this, with the variables
inhibit-file-name-operation. Be careful to use them exactly as
shown above; the details are crucial for proper behavior in the case of
multiple handlers, and for operations that have two file names that may
each have handlers.
Handlers that don’t really do anything special for actual access to the
file—such as the ones that implement completion of host names for
remote file names—should have a non-
property. For instance, Emacs normally protects directory names
it finds in
PATH from becoming magic, if they look like magic
file names, by prefixing them with ‘/:’. But if the handler that
would be used for them has a non-
property, the ‘/:’ is not added.
A file name handler can have an
operations property to
declare which operations it handles in a nontrivial way. If this
property has a non-
nil value, it should be a list of
operations; then only those operations will call the handler. This
avoids inefficiency, but its main purpose is for autoloaded handler
functions, so that they won’t be loaded except when they have real
work to do.
Simply deferring all operations to the usual primitives does not
work. For instance, if the file name handler applies to
file-exists-p, then it must handle
load itself, because
load code won’t work properly in that case. However,
if the handler uses the
operations property to say it doesn’t
file-exists-p, then it need not handle
This variable holds a list of handlers whose use is presently inhibited for a certain operation.
The operation for which certain handlers are presently inhibited.
This function returns the handler function for file name file,
nil if there is none. The argument operation should
be the operation to be performed on the file—the value you will pass
to the handler as its first argument when you call it. If
inhibit-file-name-operation, or if it is
not found in the
operations property of the handler, this
This function copies file filename to an ordinary non-magic file
on the local machine, if it isn’t on the local machine already. Magic
file names should handle the
file-local-copy operation if they
refer to files on other machines. A magic file name that is used for
other purposes than remote file access should not handle
file-local-copy; then this function will treat the file as
If filename is local, whether magic or not, this function does
nothing and returns
nil. Otherwise it returns the file name
of the local copy file.
This function tests whether filename is a remote file. If
filename is local (not remote), the return value is
If filename is indeed remote, the return value is a string that
identifies the remote system.
This identifier string can include a host name and a user name, as
well as characters designating the method used to access the remote
system. For example, the remote identifier string for the filename
file-remote-p returns the same identifier for two different
filenames, that means they are stored on the same file system and can
be accessed locally with respect to each other. This means, for
example, that it is possible to start a remote process accessing both
files at the same time. Implementers of file handlers need to ensure
this principle is valid.
identification specifies which part of the identifier shall be
returned as string. identification can be the symbol
host; any other value is handled
nil and means to return the complete identifier string.
In the example above, the remote
user identifier string would
If connected is non-
nil, this function returns
even if filename is remote, if Emacs has no network connection
to its host. This is useful when you want to avoid the delay of
making connections when they don’t exist.
This function returns the name of a directory that is not magic. For
a non-magic filename it returns the corresponding directory name
(see Directory Names). For a magic filename, it invokes the
file name handler, which therefore decides what value to return. If
filename is not accessible from a local process, then the file
name handler should indicate that by returning
This is useful for running a subprocess; every subprocess must have a non-magic directory to serve as its current directory, and this function is a good way to come up with one.
The attributes of remote files can be cached for better performance. If they are changed outside of Emacs’s control, the cached values become invalid, and must be reread.
When this variable is set to
nil, cached values are never
expired. Use this setting with caution, only if you are sure nothing
other than Emacs ever changes the remote files. If it is set to
t, cached values are never used. This is the safest value, but
could result in performance degradation.
A compromise is to set it to a positive number. This means that cached values are used for that amount of seconds since they were cached. If a remote file is checked regularly, it might be a good idea to let-bind this variable to a value less than the time period between consecutive checks. For example:
(defun display-time-file-nonempty-p (file) (let ((remote-file-name-inhibit-cache (- display-time-interval 5))) (and (file-exists-p file) (< 0 (nth 7 (file-attributes (file-chase-links file)))))))