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Amazon is giving Windows shops a taste of Microsoft's Windows server for free in the cloud.

The Amazon Web Service (AWS) Free Usage Tier now includes up to 750 hours of Windows Server 2008 R2 without having to pay the hard-to-catch cloud-fluffer anything.

Amazon is targeting developers – especially .NET heads – starting up anything that might turn into bigger paying customers once the devs' applications take off and grow.

Also available in the Free Usage Tier are another 750 free hours of Linux, along with S3, SimpleDB Elastic Block storage, and Elastic Load Balancer.

The amount of room available for free in Elastic Block Storage has also been boosted to 30GB and I/O requests doubled to two million.

Amazon's move puts pressure on Microsoft, which is trying to lure .NET and other devs to its cloud. Currently, Microsoft's free option is for a limited three-month period, after which Microsoft charges on a pay-as-you-go basis and for contracts lasting up to six months.

Azure's smallest unit of pricing is $0.04 for an extra-small instance: defined as using 1GHz of CPU, 768MB memory, 20GB storage and a "low" run rate of I/O.

Last year Microsoft made – and later extended – introductory, limited-time offers for Windows Azure. Latterly it offered free access to 750 hours of extra-small instances until September 2011.

Amazon, meanwhile, is offering the prospect of running with Windows Server 2008 R2 – as devs will know and love it. The operating system will run as a virtual instance.

Microsoft's Windows Azure compute fabric is based on Windows Server 2008 R2 but it is not identical. Microsoft has promised Virtual Machine Roles that would let .NET developers deploy what Redmond calls a "custom" Windows Server image on the Windows Azure cloud.

According to Microsoft: "The VM role runs a virtual hard drive (VHD) image of a Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual machine that you create on premise and upload to Windows Azure." First discussed in late 2010, Roles are still in beta, according to the Azure site. ®

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