Tips from the Windows Pros: Automating Setup
If you intend to install Windows XP on a bevy of computers, answering all of its installation questions repeatedly can prove an exercise in inefficiency. Instead, you can create a special script to automate the process. The Setup Manager Wizard helps you design the script, or you can base yours on the example supplied on the Windows XP CD.
The script you create is called an answer file, and it is used to install Windows XP in so-called unattended mode. In this mode, nobody needs to interact with the computer during installation. The script simply supplies the answers that you would normally have to enter from the keyboard, such as acceptance of the license agreement, workgroup and computer name, network details, and so on. The script can fully automate or only partially automate the Setup process. For example, you might want to supply defaults for the user but let him or her change them. A script can additionally stipulate the creation of special folders, execution of programs upon completion of Setup, location of Setup files, and more.
Of course, creating answer files makes sense only when you're installing Windows XP on multiple computers with a hardware complement that you know will install Windows XP properly; otherwise, you can waste more time trying to troubleshoot what happened in your absence that caused a failed or broken installation. As you know, sometimes unexpected developments occur during Setup that might require intervention. The Setup routine is fairly successful at detecting hardware when doing installations, so it's worth a try if you're deploying a large number of machines. In most cases, the time spent creating an answer file for automated unattended setup becomes cost effective when you must install 3 or more systems.
Performing unattended setups is a fairly advanced topic. I would need to devote several chapters to it in order to give it reasonable coverage. Instead of listing step-by-step information here, I prefer to point you to the best reference available on the subject: Microsoft itself. The Windows XP Resource Kit has complete and exhaustive information about automating installation. Plus, check out the text, html, and Word doc files on the distribution CD (don't forget to check the support subdirectory); a fairly useful description is there, too.