Riverbed has released two WAN optimisation boxes for offices with fewer than 20 people.

Called Steelhead 100 and 200, the devices talk to each other at the opposite ends of a WAN link to boost throughput and share files. The models consist of the same hardware, but the 100 is limited via software to support five users.

"Most of our customers are doing WAN optimisation data centre to data centre, but can't justify £5000 for a branch office. The entry point is now around £2000," said Mark Lewis, Riverbed's EMEA marketing director.

The smaller devices are attractive to BJG, an engineering and architectural firm that already uses larger Steelhead devices to boost applications performance between its two offices in Nevada, said Ron Maxwell, the firm's IT manager.

Increasingly, architects and engineers work from home, where performance over residential broadband links is slow, Maxwell said. Some users download files to laptops to work on at home, but then there is the risk that others will work on the same files simultaneously, causing version problems.

Maxwell said he might install some Steelhead 100 devices at the homes of employees who often work there and keep more at company offices for others to take home when they need them.

The loaner scenario may be helped by an updated version of the Steelhead management system which now allows each device to pull down configuration settings automatically when it is installed. Users previously had to walk through a setup wizard.

Other vendors, including Orbital Data, Packeteer and F5 Networks (ex Swan Labs), also offer WAN optimisation devices for branch offices. Rob Whiteley, an analyst with Forrester Research, predicted that more vendors of these devices will deliver smaller versions later this year.

Companies with many small branches, such as retail chains, would find these devices useful, Whiteley says. For example, stores trying to access credit card data from checkout lines could reduce customer wait time by installing them, he says.

Riverbed also is upgrading its central management console (CMC) software to include flexible management of groups of machines, to generate performance reports and to centrally assess the health of Steelheads in a network. CMC also supports a new management information base that works with other network management systems.

"The new CMC version removes the need for an administrator to visit each site," said Lewis.

He added that the new devices are Linux-based and run the same software as earlier Steelhead models, but minus the capability for high-speed TCP. The 100 is also software-upgradeable to a 200 - the only difference is the former is capped at 25 simultaneous TCP connections, while the latter can handle 75.

The Steelhead 100 costs around £2000 and the 200 is £2850. Pricing for the CMC management platform, which is a Steelhead deployed as a data collector and aggregator, also starts at £2850.