NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For years, the prevailing debate among the networking companies has always centered on two companies, market leader Cisco (CSCO) - Get Report or Juniper Networks (JNPR) - Get Report. At one point, the comparison between the two was not even close as Cisco was one of the largest companies in the world, according to market cap. But some questionable business moves allowed Juniper and lesser known names to encroach on its territory, becoming a new growth story within the sector. It is remarkable how things have changed.

These days, questions surface about the overall health of Juniper's business -- meanwhile Cisco has been resurgent, demonstrating it has not forgotten how to execute and deserves to regain its "Wall Street darling" status. However, networking companies like Juniper that are approaching the status of expensive need to be evaluated not only for growth prospects, but also for the overall health of carrier spending. A significant portion of its revenue is drawn from names such as


(T) - Get Report



(VZ) - Get Report


Even though Cisco, the market leader now appears to present the better value, Juniper continues to offer some tantalizing hopes. Investors looking for a "Cisco-like recovery" may find this may not be entirely out of the question.

In addition to an improvement in carrier spending, Juniper is poised to release several new products that should reinforce its commitment to growth and refute the argument that it is no longer capable of running its business effectively. But did it do enough convincing in its most recent earnings announcement?

The Quarter That Was

Last week the company

reported first-quarter earnings that beat Wall Street estimates but showed a drop in profits -- remarkably, it was also the fifth consecutive quarter in which Juniper showed shrinking gross margins.

The company reported a profit of $16.27 million or 3 cents per share -- representing a decline of over 87% from the previous year. So as much as I want to make a bullish case for the stock, this trend does not inspire enough confidence to warrant it.

Revenue arrived at $1.03 billion -- also down from the $1.10 billion it reported the previous year -- while reporting 16 cents per share in adjusted income.

For the current quarter, Juniper expects revenue in the range of $1.03 billion to $1.06 billion and adjusted profit in the range of 15 cents a share to 17 cents a share. Analysts were expecting a profit of 20 cents a share, on revenue of $1.05 billion, according to a consensus survey by FactSet Research.

It's hard for me to get all "warm and fuzzy" about this report, but nevertheless the company's stock soared as much as 7% when the results were said to have been leaked ahead of the official announcement, prompting the halt of trading. It seems the market rewarded Juniper with the reaction of "things were less bad than expected" -- and sometimes that it just good enough even though the company reported an outlook that (on the surface) appears less favorable compared than rivals Cisco or even


(FFIV) - Get Report

are expecting


Moving Forward

I think the market also reacted to the enthusiasm that the company's CEO Kevin Johnson demonstrated when discussing the company's business and its product portfolio -- one where he referred to it as "the broadest and most robust" in the company's history. Products include QFabric, T4000 and PTX.

Clearly there is cause for optimism and CEOs don't often boast about their company's capabilities -- raising the bar and applying more pressure on themselves - particularly in a highly competitive market where once-struggling titans such as


(HPQ) - Get Report

also appear poised to reemerge.

The fact of the matter is companies want to grow -- there is no other objective on the market that generates a higher priority. And in pursuit of that growth, network enterprises tend to scale larger as well as require increased bandwidth to support the demand for higher traffic -- whether internally or externally to service their customers. Juniper now seems poised by leveraging both innovation as well its industry expertise to secure a bigger chunk of that market in a way that I have not seen it before.

Bottom Line

For Juniper, as great as its product portfolio can potentially be, its challenge will continue to be finding ways to grow and create the sort of momentum that inspires tech investors to believe. With competition mounting from Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, F5 and even forgotten names such as



, Juniper may find it difficult to expect more silver linings to be extracted out of future "less bad performances."

At the time of publication, the author was long CSCO.