HP is releasing the first blade server version of its NonStop computer, a highly fault-tolerant system designed to compete with IBM's mainframe.

HP is also trying to steal some thunder from IBM with an interesting proposition. For customers willing to junk a mainframe application, HP is offering its new Integrity NonStop NB50000c BladeSystem "at no charge [with] a full year of NonStop platform software."

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice dismissed the trade-in offer as "marketing bravado" and "juvenile." But HP's NonStop, based on Intel Itanium processors, can certainly compete with the IBM mainframe, Eunice said.

"It's a strong product. I'm not going to read too much into fisticuffs with IBM," Eunice says. "At the end of the day, there aren't many system architectures that can do six, seven or eight 'nines' of reliability. If you're serious about vast uptime and never, ever going down, as good as Unix has become ... it doesn't have the decades of experience with the kind of reliability that mainframes and NonStop do."

NonStop, on the market since the late 1980s, has moved toward using more common components over the last several years, a shift that brings both price and management benefits to customers, Eunice says. IT management is easier when there are fewer unique or proprietary technologies within a system, he notes. "You get a better chance to reuse your systems administration skills," he claimed.

Practically all the hardware, from the memory chips and processors to the disk drives, are industry-standard parts used in other systems.

While previous HP NonStop systems cost $380,000 (£190,000) and up, this one starts at $340,000, HP executives say. It's available now.

HP's mainframe replacement offer targets finance, such as point-of-sale programs running on mainframes. A customer who is willing to move such an application from a mainframe to HP's NonStop BladeSystem gets a few freebies.

"We will give the hardware free, however much is required" to run the application, said Ron Bartels from HP's mainframe replacement program. "We will give the software free for the first year. In effect, we're taking away the initial capital application cost."

Customers have to pay HP partner Logica to move the mainframe application to a BladeSystem, and have to pick up the hardware and software maintenance costs. But customers get to keep the mainframe and use the freed-up capacity for other purposes, Bartels says.

That's in contrast to a similar IBM program that offers rebates to Unix customers who are willing to junk their HP PA-RISC systems and replace them with IBM Unix servers. IBM requires customers to hand over their old HP systems in order to qualify for the rebate.

Eunice would be surprised if many people take HP up on the offer. Getting rid of a perfectly good mainframe application would be like an airline junking an Airbus because Boeing offered a free 777, he said.