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Creating A Windows XP Recovery Console CD Image

The only way to get a "skinny" version of the Windows XP Recovery Console onto a custom CD is to copy the necessary files from an installation disc to your rescue media. Here's how.

Sooner or later, every XP user faces the moment when he or she needs to access a system in a low-level maintenance mode to fix some kind of problem with the operating system itself.

Perhaps the system boot record became corrupted, or perhaps you simply need to restore a system file that can't be manipulated while the system is running, or maybe you need to disable a system service that is causing problems with Windows.

In these kinds of situations you will need to boot the computer into a mode that allows for manipulating the installed operating system in its native form, but without the entire operating system being active and running.

Thankfully, Microsoft provides a lightweight tool called Recovery Console on the installation CD for use in these kinds of situations. Just insert the installation disc, boot the system, press the "R" key when prompted, and the recovery tool will try to locate an existing Windows installation. If one is found, you will be prompted to login with an administrative user account for that installation, and will then be able to perform a variety of system-level recovery tasks from within the thinned-down command prompt, using Windows' own character-mode tools.

The Recovery Console can also be installed onto the system drive, in parallel to the operating system, so that it can be used without the CD. This article by Fred Langa talks about how to do this.

Another option is to put the Recovery Console onto a general-purpose, multi-boot rescue CD, along with all of your other system recovery tools (see this article for background information on building a general-purpose system recovery CD).

The easiest way to do that is to simply copy the contents of the installation CD into the rescue CD's layout, but since the Windows XP installation CD uses about 600 MB, there wouldn't be much room for anything else. However, if you are willing to get your hands dirty, it's possible to whittle the setup files down to the base essential components needed for just the Recovery Console to run, which collectively requires less than 10 MB of space.

Judging from what I've found on the Internet (or rather, the lack thereof)--not to mention my own difficulties in trying to get this working--it seems that this is a relatively unknown subject area, so I'll walk through the process in this article.

Before we get too far into the weeds here, it's important to make note of some important technical issues. For one thing, the Windows XP boot process for CDs is quite a bit different from and entirely incompatible with the boot process that is used for hard drives and floppy disks.

For example, the "normal" XP boot loader that lives in the boot sector of a hard drive or floppy disk starts by looking for a file called ntldr in the root directory of the current file system, which in turn reads the contents of the boot.ini boot menu control file, and then follows whatever course of action was specified by the user's menu selection.

However, Windows XP uses a different boot loader for CD media, which does not use the ntldr or boot.ini constructs. Instead, the CD boot loader looks for a file called setupldr.bin in the i386 subdirectory, and setupldr.bin is just the CD-specific version of the system installation program. On top of all that, ntldr does not have any kind of native support for ISO 9660 file systems, so it can't be used on CD media.

What this all means is that you cannot just copy the contents of an installed Recovery Console from your hard drive to a CD and expect that version to be usable. For one thing, the ntldr boot image cannot be used on CD media. Meanwhile, the only XP boot image that does understand CD media has an embedded system setup program. In sum, the only way to get a skinny version of the Recovery Console onto a custom CD is to copy the necessary files from an installation disc to your rescue media.

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