Netgear next week is expected to jump into the Layer 3 Gigabit switch market with a 24-port box that can act as a hardware-based LAN router for small and midsize nets.

The GSM7324 will have 24 ports of 10/100/1000M bit/sec Ethernet and the ability to shunt packets based Layer 3 IP address information. The managed box (supporting Simple Network Management Protocol) will also include four fiber Gigabit port insert slots for adding uplinks connections.

In addition to basic hardware-based Layer 3 routing, the switch will also support advanced routing protocols such as Router Information Protocol (RIP) versions 1 and 2, Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) protocol, and Virtual Redundant Router Protocol, for configuring two routers in a hot-standby setup.

Netgear held 9% of the worldwide Ethernet port shipments in 2002 (selling more ports than Nortel, Extreme and Foundry combined, according to Gartner Dataquest). But it only played in the basic Layer 2 switch market, with its customer base consisting largely of small businesses and home network buyers.

With its new switch, observers say, the Nortel spin-off company is counting on more demand for advanced features - such as hardware-based routing and Gigabit Ethernet - from sophisticated SMB customers. The move could also help it fend off Dell, which is charging hard after the same SMB market, but does not offer a full Layer 3 box.