Windows Server 2003 includes an optional component—Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS)—that lets enterprises install virtually an unlimited number of Windows XP clients over a network. RIS supports several installation options, including a simple install, which uses the standard interactive Windows Setup, and scripted installs, in which an unattended install script allows for hands-off, automated Windows installations. You can also use RIS to image a running PC, upload the image to the RIS server, and then deploy the image to client PCs. (Don't confuse image in this sense with the images used in Windows Vista setups. Although the two types of images are conceptually similar, they aren't based on the same imaging technology. RIS images are collections of files and folders, whereas Vista images are single, more manageable files.)

You install RIS via the Add/Remove Windows Components section of the Control Panel Add or Remove Programs applet. (You don't use the role-based Manage Your Server dashboard because RIS isn't considered to be a server role.) After RIS is installed, you can launch the RIS Setup Wizard to determine where RIS images will be stored. To create RIS images, insert a client install CD, such as the XP setup CD, and the wizard will begin the lengthy process of copying the necessary files to the hard disk.

Like many Windows services, RIS requires an Active Directory (AD)–based network with a DHCP server. (RIS can't deploy Windows to PCs that have static IP addresses.) It's also possible for a RIS server to be a DHCP server, standard member server, or even a domain controller (DC), although the latter is advisable only in small environments.

RIS is pretty finicky. If you want to use a RIS server to install Windows over a network, the clients must support the Preboot Execution Environment (PXE). The clients must also include one of a specific range of network cards; otherwise, you'll have to use a PXE boot floppy disk, which is a problem because most PCs no longer include floppy disk drives. RIS supports installing Windows to only the C drive on the client system; you can't create images of systems if the Windows directory isn't on the C drive.

RIS servers require a partition or drive that's separate from the Windows directory, so you can't store RIS images on the C drive, on a network drive, or on a drive that isn't formatted with NTFS. Like its replacement in Vista—Windows Deployment Services (WDS)—RIS utilizes Single Instance Storage (SIS) so that files that would otherwise be duplicated across multiple images are stored only once on the disk when possible, saving disk space.

Client OSs are deployed by booting a PXE-based client system and choosing the network boot option. Although each PC handles this type of deployment differently, the high-level view is always the same: PXE locates a RIS server on the network, gets an IP address via DHCP, and launches Setup. You might have to enter certain information on the client to jump-start things, depending on whether you configured the install image with a text-based answer file.