There are many IntelliJ plugins out there. Still, existing SDK documentation does not cover every development step. Here I describe how a basic IntelliJ plugin with menu and import/export functionality can be developed.

Plugin View

Plugin’s purpose

Sometimes, after working on some project for a long enough period, you end up with a particular window layout that is convenient for you, e.g., console on the right side, source code on the left, debug window at the top.

However, if you open the same project on a different machine, the layout you’ve so delicately configured will be lost. Same situation will happen if you want to reuse a layout from some other project.

Preserve Layout Plugin allows you to export the layout of any IntelliJ project and then import it back. Export is done using the XML format.

About this blog post

I wrote this post to address the issues I encountered during development of such plugin. As of current date (Oct 20, 2017), IntelliJ SDK documentation is way far from being complete. Below is my collection of findings regarding missing pieces.

Initial Setup

For initial setup, if you never developed a JetBrains’ plugin, I highly recommend to go through the Getting Started section of IntelliJ Platform SDK.

You will notice that some sections are missing and greyed out. However, just by following these initial setup steps you will get just enough to create your own plugin. It is important to mention that in order to debug a plugin you will need the source code of IntelliJ Community Edition checked out and attached to the project.


If you are familiar with plugin development for IntelliJ, it is safe to skip this section.

To play around a little bit, let’s create a very simple plugin with one action. Just to test the things and confirm that setup is working.

First thing you might look in to is the plugin.xml file that contains the basic configuration of your plugin.

After filling in the standard information fields like <vendor> or <version> we can jump straight to the <actions> section.
Here we can statically position and initialize our actions.

plugin.xml is sufficient enough for most needs. However, when doing complex stuff, we can initialize actions dynamically in Java.

Let’s position our action in the Project View popup menu, the one that appears when you right-click the project name in IDEA.

Information tags:

<name>Preserve Layout Plugin</name>
<vendor email="" url=""></vendor>

Decribing actions:

  <action id="ExportLayout"
  <add-to-group group-id="ProjectViewPopupMenu"

You can see that we created a unique id for this action. A class for the should also be specified. A name and description will be LayoutExporter. The <add-to-group ...> tag is the one responsible for tying our action to the specific menu in IDEA.

Obviously, we will need a class responsible for this action. Let’s make it super simple: it will print project’s name to the console. You can notice that we inherit from AnAction class and override the actionPerformed method.

package com.duseev.intellij.preservelayout;

import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnAction;
import com.intellij.openapi.actionSystem.AnActionEvent;
import com.intellij.openapi.project.*;

public class LayoutExporter extends AnAction {

   public void actionPerformed(AnActionEvent e) {
       // TODO: insert action logic here
       Project project = e.getProject();

After we run this code, IDEA will spawn a new instance of itself with our plugin installed by default. After we right click on the project (you will need a project to be created or open) and invoke context menu, we will see that LayoutExporter action appeared in this menu. Clicking this action will print a project name to the console output.

Of course, we can assign actions to a different menu. For example, in preserve-layout-plugin actions are added to the WindowMenu.

Window layout in IDEA

Stepping into the actual logic, we might ask ourselves where is the layout of current project stored in IntelliJ IDEA? Turns out it can be stored in two ways:

  • directory based project: in workspace.xml file under .idea directory
  • file based project: in .iws file in a project directory

JetBrains is planning to deprecate the file based format. But we still have to support both options.

Getting current window layout: To obtain current layout state we obtain an instance of the ToolWindowManagerImpl:

ToolWindowManagerImpl mgr = (ToolWindowManagerImpl) ToolWindowManager.getInstance(e.getProject());

Having the manager, we can now ask it for a current layout. An instance of DesktopLayout will be returned. Then we cas use DesktopLayout to return org.jdom.Element representation of itself.

DesktopLayout dl = mgr.getLayout();
Element layout = dl.writeExternal("layout");

Next step is to save this XML/DOM Element somewhere.

File Saver dialog & Saving/writing a file

File Saving dialog: Somehow, file saving dialog in IntelliJ is invoked in a different way, comparing to File Chooser. It is also not mentioned yet in documentation. However, you can come across a FileSaverDescriptor class, which when instantiated and passed to FileChooserFactory as a parameter will produce a correct dialog window.

Writing to a File in IntelliJ: Actual data writing is simple, but not obvious. It is required to execute “write” operations outside of the main thread. To address this, IntelliJ provides a very convenient WriteCommandAction abstraction.

Besides that, best approach to write a file to a disk is through the VirtualFile abstraction layer.

Let’s take a look at a composed example of logic required to save an XML to a file in IntelliJ.

// Use XML to covert Element to String
XMLOutputter outputter = new XMLOutputter(Format.getPrettyFormat());
String exportContent = outputter.outputString(doc);

// Describe file saving dialog
FileSaverDescriptor descriptor = new FileSaverDescriptor(
        "Save Layout",
        "Choose path for layout export...",

// Obtain a file wrapper from FileChooserFactory
VirtualFileWrapper wrapper = FileChooserFactory
        .createSaveFileDialog(descriptor, e.getProject())
        .save(e.getProject().getBaseDir(), "layout.xml");

if (wrapper == null) return;
VirtualFile file = wrapper.getVirtualFile(true);

if (file == null) throw new Exception("Couldn't create new file");

// Write to disk outside of main GUI thread
new WriteCommandAction.Simple(e.getProject()) {
    protected void run() throws Throwable {
        VfsUtil.saveText(file, exportContent);

File Chooser dialog & importing layout

The best way to select a file in IntelliJ is to use the FileChooser dialog and the overloaded function chooseFile that accepts a callback parameter to be called after the file is selected. When using this approach IntelliJ is able to invoke native file chooser dialog window on every platform.

    file -> importLayoutFileToProject(file.getCanonicalPath(), e.getProject())

Now we need a callback function importLayoutFileToProject().

private void importLayoutFileToProject(String path, Project project) {
    if (path == null) return;
    if (project == null) return;

    try {
        Element layout = parseLayoutFile(path);
        applyLayoutToProject(layout, project);
    } catch (Exception ex) {
        // notify user

As you can notice, importLayoutFileToProject makes 2 calls to the helping methods. One to parse the imported XML file, and the other to apply the parsed layout to IDE. Let’s implement them as well.

private Element parseLayoutFile(String path) throws Exception {
    Document doc = new SAXBuilder().build(new File(path));
    return doc.getRootElement();

private void applyLayoutToProject(Element layout, Project project) {
    ToolWindowManagerImpl mgr = (ToolWindowManagerImpl) ToolWindowManager.getInstance(project);
    DesktopLayout dl = mgr.getLayout();

Having all that we can now import and export window layout’s of any project. However, it would be nice to notify a user about results of the export/import process.

IntelliJ Notifications

Basic notifications are very easy to fire in IntelliJ:

Notifications.Bus.notify(new Notification(
    "Preserve Layout",
    "Successful Export",
    "Saved to " + file.getCanonicalPath(),
), e.getProject());

Here we can change the icon to emphasize the ERROR status.

Notifications.Bus.notify(new Notification(
    "Preserve Layout",
    "Export Failed",
), e.getProject());

Make plugin runnable in every JetBrains IDE

Last thing but not the least important. To support every JetBrains IDE it is required to specify the <depends> tag in <plugin>. More details about plugin compatibility are available at SDK docs.


Special thanks

This plugin has been developed thanks to Alexander Zolotov from JetBrains team. He provided tons of invaluable tips and advices during the development of this plugin.