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Preactivation issues may arise when installing XP to multiple PCs at once

If you're installing Windows XP across multiple machines and you have a volume license key, does each computer need to be activated individually? Not if you deploy the Windows Systems Preparation tool Sysprep.

If an administrator has to install Windows XP to more than one machine at once, the usual approach (when the systems have similar hardware) is to build a system image and use Norton Ghost or a similar system-imaging tool to deploy it.

However, one possible problem that can arise from this is how to deal with product activation. If you're installing across multiple machines and you have a volume license key, does each computer need to be activated individually?

Generally, the answer is no. But when preparing the image, you need to follow certain steps. An admin will usually employ the Microsoft System Preparation tool Sysprep to create and seal the system image before deployment. However, Sysprep normally erases the activation data from a system when it's sealed, so when dealing with volume license keys, you must take the following steps.

  1. Prepare your system image as you normally would on one of the target computers. Minor variations in the hardware from computer to computer (such as memory size) should not be an issue unless you feel that the cumulative changes on any one computer would cause activation to be re-triggered. Since the threshold for changes is generally set pretty high, this shouldn't be an issue when imaging out to hardware that's been ordered in a lot and is more or less identical, such as 30 of the same general variety of laptops.
  2. Once the system image is ready, activate the image computer using the appropriate volume license key.
  3. Create the \Sysprep folder on the image computer and copy the files Sysprep.EXE, SETUPCL.EXE and FACTORY.EXE into that folder.
  4. Create a SYSPREP.INF file in that folder and add (or edit) the following lines:
    (The exact value for is listed below and varies depending on the OS.)
  6. When SYSPREP finishes, the system can now be imaged using the utility of your choice.

The product key line will contain a placeholder key, supplied by Microsoft, which will instruct the computer to preserve the existing volume license key information. You'll need to supply different keys depending on which edition of Windows you're using:

Windows XP Professional 32 bit

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Windows XP Professional x64 bit

Note: These product keys are only placeholders, and will not work in a standalone environment.

Also, if the system in question has to be re-activated at any time due to hardware changes, product activation will ask for the volume license key for that particular computer. The substitute key listed above is not an actual working key, so product activation will demand that you supply a real one if it needs to run again. Be sure that the volume license keys you use are associated with the correct computers and products.

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators. He is also the author of the book Windows Server Undocumented Solutions.

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