I need an easy way to perform 50 new installations of Windows XP and XP Service Pack 1a (SP1a). Do you know of a shortcut?

I do. The technique is called slipstreaming and involves incorporating SP1a into the XP installation software. (Slipstreaming also works with Windows 2000.)

First, you need to create XP installation software that includes SP1a. Create a directory folder on any drive and download the complete XP SP1a Network Install version into that folder. (You can download this executable, which is approximately 128MB, at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=83e4e879-fa3a-48bf-ade5-023443e29d78&displaylang=en.) Extract the service pack files to a separate folder. To do so, you can use WinZip Computing's WinZip (my preference because the product shows me the individual files when I open the compressed executable), or you can open a command prompt and type

­x

to open a window that will prompt you for a location to which to extract the files. After the extraction is finished, create another folder for the XP source files. Copy the contents of the XP installation CD-ROM into this folder.

To update the XP installation files to include SP1a, open a command prompt, go to the Update folder within your service pack file folder, then type

update /s::\

For example, if you extracted the SP1a files to a folder named SP1a on your C drive and copied the XP files to a folder named Windows_XP on your C drive, you'd type

cd C:\SP1a\update
update /s:C:\Windows_XP

You can now use Smart Projects' IsoBuster (which you can download for free at http://www.smart-projects.net/isobuster) or a comparable tool to copy the boot files from the XP installation CD-ROM to your source-file folder. To use IsoBuster, insert the XP installation CD-ROM and close the Installation screen that appears. Open IsoBuster, navigate to the XP CD-ROM, and right-click the Microsoft Corporation.img file. Choose Extract from the context menu to extract the image file to your source-file folder. After the extraction, you can use a tool such as Ahead Software's Nero Burning ROM (5.5.9.0 or later) to create a bootable XP SP1a installation CD-ROM from the files in the source-file folder. (If you use Nero, be sure to enable Expert Settings, change the number of loaded sectors to 4, and point Nero to the Microsoft Corporation.img file.)

If making a bootable CD-ROM isn't an option, you can use a Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE) machine to make a 3.5" boot disk, then run the installation from a network share containing the XP source files. Be aware, however, that both procedures require you to eject the installation media (i.e., the CD-ROM or 3.5" disk), so someone will need to be at each system to complete the installation. Still, slipstreaming can shorten the time you'll need to complete these installations.