Small businesses can now afford server load balancing and Layer 7 content switching, claimed Kemp Technologies as it announced the LoadMaster 1500, undercutting many of the other entry-level content switches on the market.

The 1500 includes features such as Layer 7 persistence - useful if your ecommerce customers might otherwise lose their online shopping baskets - stateful failover and SSL acceleration, said Kemp's sales and marketing director Peter Melerud, yet lists at £1499, including a year's support.

"We don't really have that much competition. The likes of F5, Foundry, Radware, Cisco and Nortel play in our space, but at the other end of the spectrum," he claimed.

The 1500 has three 100Mbit/s Ethernet ports and can handle up to 10,000 concurrent L7 sessions. It can support up to 1000 servers, although Melerud said that's not its target market.

"Our target is customers moving from shared hosting to managed or self-hosting, and looking to add a second server for resilience or extra capacity," he said

By comparison, the larger manufacturers clearly have data centres and server farms in mind - not mirrored pairs of webservers - even when they talk about entry-level devices.

For example, the low end of Nortel's ex-Alteon line can handle 15,000 L7 sessions and has ten Ethernet ports. Similarly, Foundry's entry-level ServerIron XL has five times the throughput of the Kemp device, plus 16 ports and Gigabit Ethernet options.

However, both of these lack integrated SSL acceleration and they are several times more expensive than the LoadMaster 1500.

"We found there were smaller companies looking for this sort of technology, but they couldn't afford it," Melerud said.

He claimed that while there are cheaper or open-source load balancers, most operate at Layer 2 or 4 and aren't content-aware. (Some would dispute the importance of that, however.)

"It's not just webservers, it could also be services such as mail hosting or Citrix," he added. "At that level - two servers - it's hard to justify a big box, but you still have to have L7 and high availability.

"An important criterion is SSL offload. On the 1500, it's done in software on the CPU - that's OK for lower end applications on a 100Mbit/s circuit." The larger LoadMaster 2500 includes SSL acceleration hardware, he said, adding: "It's the same brand of card as F5 uses."

He acknowledged that LoadBalancer is not as capable as the big enterprise content switches. For example, it lacks performance-enhancing features such as TCP multiplexing.

"The goal is not to compete with the F5s and Radwares of this world, it's to open up a new market. To do that, we took out things that SMBs won't need," he said.