How to make an IntelliJ IDEA plugin in less than 30 minutes

Sometimes it is a nice thing to extend an editor to have it do some new stuff, like being able to revert an open file to its state on disk. In this post I’m going to quickly demonstrate how to start and finish a plugin to extend the IntelliJ IDEA editor from Jetbrains.
These instructions will work if you have the Ultimate or Community edition, and you can make the plugin available for all IntelliJ based editors including WebStorm, PyCharm, RubyMine and PHPStorm.

Whether you can finish these instructions under 30 minutes depends on your internet connection speed, because you have to do a git clone of the IntelliJ Community Edition source code, and that’s a lot of stuff to download.

At my current employer Floobits we are working on an IntelliJ plugin, and through that process I have learned most of this.

 System requirements

OS: I have developed plugins for IntelliJ on both Mac OS X and Windows and the steps are the same.

Java: JDK 6 works, JDK 7 might not. I compile with a Java 1.6 JDK.

HD space: Lots of space for multiple copies of IntelliJ IDEA and its source code.

 Getting the environment set up.

Resource: Official Jetbrain instructions

 Step 1: Download and install Community Edition of IntelliJ IDEA

The first step, is to download and install the Community version of IntelliJ IDEA if you don’t already have it. Even if you have the Ultimate version of IntelliJ IDEA, you will need the Community version. This is because the Ultimate version is closed source and when you’re debugging it is nice to be able to see the source and definitions for IntelliJ resources. Note I still use the Ultimate version of IntelliJ IDEA (version 13) to develop the plugin. I debug and test the plugin using the Community version.

Remember the path to where the Community Edition was installed to, you’ll need this in a moment.

 Step 2: Do a shallow git clone of the IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition source code

git clone --depth 1

This step will take the longest because it takes forever to do a git clone of the IntelliJ source code. Thus do a shallow git clone using –depth 1 in the command. This is really simple on a Mac or any *nix based system, just use git clone –depth 1. On Windows I used Atlassian’s SourceTree which allows you to specify the depth in the GUI. A depth of 1 reduces the download because the history is truncated to a depth of 1. If you do not do this step, downloading the source code will take you days.

 Step 3: Create a project and set up your project structure.

 Create a project

Fire up the version of IntelliJ that you want to use to write code. This can be either of the Ultimate or Community versions. Create a new project. Name it whatever you want to call your plugin. I’m going to call mine DiskRead.

 Set up the SDK

If you already have a Java JDK skip this paragraph. If you don’t have one already, you’ll have to get a Java JDK. Somewhere or other on the Jetbrains site it recommends Java 1.6, but Oracle will warn you that it is out of date. I have had problems using the JDK 7 when interacting with Intellij jar files compiled with 1.6. Once you have downloaded a Java JDK, you’ll need to create an SDK for this in IntelliJ IDEA even though we will not use it directly. In the project structure dialog that appears after you create a new project, create a new SDK for the version of Java you downloaded similar to the step below, only you’ll be giving it the path to where you installed the Java JDK.

Setup a Plugin SDK by clicking the “new” button next to the Project SDK:

2014-01-29 at 6.17 AM 2x.png

2014-01-29 at 6.29 AM 2x.png

Note that the SDK setup project structure dialog looks a little different on Windows.

It will prompt you to locate the Comunity Edition that you installed. You are not to give it the path to the source you downloaded, this step requires the path to the Community Edition of IntelliJ that you installed in the first step. On a Mac the path for this is:

/Applications/IntelliJ IDEA 13

On Windows the path was:

C:\\Program Files (x86)\JetBrains\IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition 13.0.1

Click finish if you are happy with where it will create the project, but you are not yet done setting things up.

You should now see a project window for the project you just created. Go to File->Project Structure from the menu. On a mac you can just hit ⌘+; on Windows it’s Cntrl+Alt+Shift+S. On the left side, click on “SDKs” and check out the classpath tab:

2014-01-29 at 6.40 AM 2x.png

Next click on the sourcepath tab:

2014-01-29 at 6.43 AM 2x.png

Here you’ll add the path to the shallow git clone for the IntelliJ Community edition source you checked out. Click the plus button at the bottom. Find the path in the dialog that appears. Click OK, then you should see a bunch of classes were added. Click apply and ok.

We are still not done settings everything up. Next you’ll want to set up a build and debug configuration. From the top menu go to Run -> Edit configurations:

2014-01-29 at 6.53 AM 2x.png

2014-01-29 at 6.56 AM 2x.png

Give the build configuration a name, it’s not important what it is. I also recommend checking “Show idea.log” because it gives you a nice tab in the debug window to show you info and warning statements.

Congratulations, you are now all done setting up!

 Developing the plugin


IntelliJ IDEA Plugin Development Guide

Plugin Development FAQ

IntelliJ IDEA Architectural Overview

 Making it work.

So now that the environment is all set up, in order to get my file to reflect the state on disk I need to create an action. First thing is to use the GUI to create a new action:

2014-01-29 at 12.23 PM 2x.png

2014-01-29 at 12.27 PM 2x.png

So I right click on src in the project sidebar and click “new” and then click “Action.” This will lead to a dialog to create a new Action. You give it a name, an id, a class name, a helpful description and then assign it to a group which will tell IntelliJ where to put this action. Actions don’t have to be a part of groups, and you can even make buttons that go into the project UI, but in this case I just want it to be in the “toolbar” menu like so:

2014-01-29 at 1.06 PM 2x.png

You can also assign keyboard shortcuts, as I did.

Once you’re all done there click OK and two things should have happened:

  1. Your plugin.xml should be updated to reflect your new action. You can see this XML file by selecting it from within the META-INF directory in your project sidebar. You should see your action in the actions section.

  2. A new class called ReadCurrentFile was created.

For me the new class looks like this:

import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnAction;
import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnActionEvent;
 * User: bjorn
 * Date: 1/29/14
 * Time: 12:28 PM
public class ReadCurrentFile extends AnAction {
    public void actionPerformed(AnActionEvent e) {
        // TODO: insert action logic here

I do some little magic coding and write the code to get my plugin to do what I want:

import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnAction;
import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnActionEvent;
import com.intellij.openapi.application.ApplicationManager;
import com.intellij.openapi.command.CommandProcessor;
import com.intellij.openapi.editor.Document;
import com.intellij.openapi.editor.Editor;
import com.intellij.openapi.fileEditor.FileDocumentManager;
import com.intellij.openapi.fileEditor.FileEditorManager;
import com.intellij.openapi.project.Project;
import com.intellij.openapi.vfs.VirtualFile;

import java.util.regex.Pattern;

 * User: bjorn
 * Date: 1/29/14
 * Time: 12:28 PM
public class ReadCurrentFile extends AnAction {
    public void actionPerformed(AnActionEvent e) {
        final Project project = e.getProject();
        if (project == null) {
        Editor editor = FileEditorManager.getInstance(project).getSelectedTextEditor();
        if (editor == null) {
        final Document document = editor.getDocument();
        if (document == null) {
        VirtualFile virtualFile = FileDocumentManager.getInstance().getFile(document);
        if (virtualFile == null) {
        final String contents;
        try {
            BufferedReader br = new BufferedReader(new FileReader(virtualFile.getPath()));
            String currentLine;
            StringBuilder stringBuilder = new StringBuilder();
            while ((currentLine = br.readLine()) != null) {
            contents = stringBuilder.toString();
        } catch (IOException e1) {
        final Runnable readRunner = new Runnable() {
            public void run() {
        ApplicationManager.getApplication().invokeLater(new Runnable() {
            public void run() {
                CommandProcessor.getInstance().executeCommand(project, new Runnable() {
                    public void run() {
                }, "DiskRead", null);

This basically does one thing: When the action is run (like by selecting it from the tools menu), it reads the current file from disk and updates it. It does this by getting the current active editor from the project, then getting the document from it, using that to get the VirtualFile and then using a plain old Java File to read the contents from disk. Reading from the VirtualFile would accomplish nothing, as that is the cached content that I’m trying to replace from disk.

The runnables and invoke later nested classes you see there are required by IntelliJ. It’s very verbose, but basically you can’t write a file in the main thread, it needs to be done in a runWriteAction which requires an invokeLater. If you want to read from VirtualFiles and documents you’d need to run that in a similar runReadAction. IntelliJ will scream at you at runtime if you forget to do this.

The last thing I do is update the document with setText. Internally IntelliJ documents represent new lines with the unixy “\n” line ending in all cases. Attempting to use a carriage return will result in an assertion error. So thus I append all new lines to the StringBuffer as “\n” instead of what they originally were and any carriage returns will be replaced with new lines. When IntelliJ writes files to disk, it will use the type of new line characters you have selected in your preferences, but internally it is always “\n”.

 Testing it

Finally, I click Run->Debug and IntelliJ will spawn a second IntelliJ instance which will have my plugin installed. I open up a dummy project, write some text into a file without saving it (note I have all automated saves disabled in my settings), and then go to the Tools menu to select my action. I see it runs, and removed all the text I added into the file.


Now that I’m all done I want to tell the world about it and install it myself. For that, go back to your regular IntelliJ and go to Build ->Prepare Plugin Module “DiskRead” For Deployment

This may create either a zip file or a jar file. You can install this new file right into your IntelliJ by opening up settings and going to plugin and clicking the “Install from Disk” or you can go ahead and get your plugin up on the official Jetbrains plugin repository.

 Final note

If you want your plugin to work in PyCharm or RubyMine or any of the other IntelliJ based editors you need to uncomment a line in your plugin.xml.

Change this:

  <!-- uncomment to enable plugin in all products

To this:


I put the source code in a GitHub repo:

Any errors or comments, please send to @bjorntipling


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