Microsoft said last week it would remove the price tag from its Virtual Server and begin offering the virtualization technology as a free download to Windows users.Virtual Server 2005 R2 Enterprise Edition has carried a price of $199 since it shipped in December 2005. The news came on the opening day of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston, where Microsoft also said Virtual Server add-ins to support Linux are available and that it would provide support under current Microsoft contracts for Linux guest operating systems running on Virtual Server 2005 R2. In addition, Microsoft said the first service pack for Virtual Server 2005 R2, which features integration with virtualization technologies from Intel and AMD, would be delayed until early 2007.Microsoft also said the standard version of Virtual Server is being discontinued. For the 5,000 customers that have purchased Virtual Server, Microsoft said those with Software Assurance maintenance contracts would be "taken care of," but stopped short of saying Microsoft would offer refunds to those that had licensed the server. "It could mean different things for different [Software Assurance] customers," says Jim Ni, a group product manager for Microsoft's Windows Server team. "We want to craft something that is a win-win situation."Ni said users without contracts have probably realized the value of their investment through consolidation and other cost savings supported by virtualization.Ni said Microsoft believes virtualization should be delivered as part of the operating system, and offering Virtual Server 2005 R2 for free provides a perfect way to get users started and on a path to Longhorn Server. That product, due to ship in 2007, is slated to feature an advanced virtualization technology called Hypervisor.Experts say Microsoft's hand was forced by market leader VMware, which said in February it would offer VMware Server for free this summer, and by Red Hat and Novell, both of which plan to make open source Xen virtualization technology a part of their respective Linux operating systems."I don't think Microsoft had much choice in the matter," says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata. "The bottom line is there is not a whole lot of market to buy that product from Microsoft."Microsoft is taking the same angle as VMware by offering introductory capabilities and then trying to move users to more robust features, such as Hypervisor and management tools, to support more important business processes.VMware last week said that its disk-format specification for defining and formatting virtual machines will be offered for free. Depending on this format for virtual machine environments are patch, provisioning, security, management, backup and other infrastructure products.Microsoft has its own format called Virtual Hard Disk, which it began offering royalty-free last May, and the company announced last Monday it has 45 vendors signed on to the program. The newest licensees include Brocade, Diskeeper, Fujitsu-Siemens, Network Appliance, Softricity, Virtual Iron and XenSource.Virtual Server 2005 R2 runs on Windows versions 2003 and later (Microsoft recommends the Windows 2003 R2 version).