Driver manager configuration

The driver manager needs to know to which databases to connect with which ODBC drivers. This configuration needs to be maintained by the user.


Windows comes with a preinstalled driver manager that can be configured with the ODBC data source administrator. Please see Microsoft’s official documentation for this. Besides adding your data sources, no special measures need to be done for your configuration to be found.

Unixodbc (Linux and OSX)

Unixodbc is a different beast. For one thing, you need to install it first. That is usually an easy task involving a simple apt-get install unixodbc (Linux) or brew install unixodbc (OSX with Homebrew).

However, unixodbc can be configured in many ways, both with and without graphical guidance. The official documentation is not always easy to follow, and finding what you are looking for may be more difficult than you planned for and may involve looking into unixodbc’s source code.

The following primer assumes that no graphic tools are used (as is often common in server environments). It is not specific to turbodbc and based on information available at these locations:

ODBC configuration files

Unixodbc’s main configuration file is usually called odbc.ini. odbc.ini defines data sources that are available for connecting. It is a simple ini-style text file with the following layout:

[data source name]
Driver = /path/to/
Option1 = Value
Option2 = Other value

[other data source]
Driver = Identifier specified in odbcinst.ini file
OptionA = Value

The sections define data source names that can be used to connect with the respective database. Each section requires a Driver key. The value of this key may either contain the path to the database’s ODBC driver or a key that identifies the driver in unixodbc’s other configuration file odbcinst.ini. Each section may contain an arbitrary number of key-value pairs that specify further connection options. These connection options are driver-specific, so you need to refer to the ODBC driver’s reference for that.

As mentioned before, unixodbc features a second (and optional) configuration file usually called odbcinst.ini. This file lists available ODBC drivers and labels them for convenient reference in odbc.ini. The file also follows the ini-style convention:

[driver A]
Driver = /path/to/
Threading = 2
Description = A driver to access ShinyDB databases

[driver B]
Driver = /some/other/driver/

The sections define names that can be used as values for the Driver keys in odbc.ini. Each section needs to feature Driver keys themselves, where the values represent paths to the respective ODBC drivers. Some additional options are available such as the Threading level (see unixodbc’s source code for details) or a Description field.

Configuration file placement options

Unixodbc has a few places where it looks for its configuration files:

  • Global configuration files are found in /etc/odbc.ini and /etc/odbcinst.ini. Data sources defined in /etc/odbc.ini are available to all users of your computer. Drivers defined in /etc/odbcinst.ini can be used by all users of your computer.

  • Users can define additional data sources by adding the file ~/.odbc.ini to their home directory. It seems that a file called ~/.odbcinst.ini has no effect.

  • Users can add a folder in which to look for configuration files by setting the ODBCSYSINI environment variable:

    > export ODBCSYSINI=/my/folder

    This will override the configuration files found at /etc. Place your configuration files at /my/folder/odbc.ini and /my/folder/odbcinst.ini.

  • Users can override the path for the user-specific odbc.ini file by setting the ODBCINI environment variable:

    > export ODBCINI=/full/path/to/odbc.ini

    If you set this option, unixodbc will no longer consider ~/.odbc.ini.


    Do not expect the ODBCINSTINI environment variable to work just as ODBCINI. Instead, the ODBCINSTINI specifies the file name of odbcinst.ini relative to the value of the ODBCSYSINI variable. I suggest not to use this variable since it is outright confusing.

Configuration file placement recommendations

Here are a few typical scenarios:

  • First steps with unixodbc: Create a new folder that contains odbc.ini and odbcinst.ini. Set the ODBCSYSINI variable to this folder.
  • Experimenting with a new database/driver: Create a new folder that contains odbc.ini and odbcinst.ini. Set the ODBCSYSINI variable to this folder.
  • Provision a system with drivers: Place an odbcinst.ini file at /etc/odbcinst.ini. Tell users to configure their databases using ~/odbc.ini or setting ODBCINI.
  • Switching between multiple distinct configurations (test/production): Use the ODBCSYSINI variable if the configurations do not share common drivers. Otherwise, use the ODBCINI variable to switch between different odbc.ini files.