By Jim Duffy

Juniper Networks' announcement this week of switches and routers designed to flatten and simplify legacy networks is the latest sign that this company has no intention of backing off in the face of ever stiffer data center competition from Cisco, HP and others.

Juniper's rollout takes aim at Cisco's Nexus switches and other data center network wares, while setting the stage for Juniper's Project Stratus, a converged data center fabric unveiled in early 2009 but still another eight to 12 months away from delivery.

Juniper is trying to set itself apart by optimizing its product line around increasing use of virtualization technologies within the most compute- and networking-intensive sites.

"Virtualization levels the network playing field," says Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. "The vendor that solves that problem first has a huge upside."

The challenge for Juniper is that Cisco's been targeting virtualization from the networking side for several years, while server titans such as HP and IBM -- a Juniper partner in Stratus -- have been tackling it from the compute side even longer.Meanwhile, Brocade points out that it has been building data center fabrics with partners for years and that Juniper remains vague about how it will support legacy storage networks.

So Juniper needs to deliver sooner rather than later on the bold pronouncements it made this week, last fall at customer site New York Stock Exchange and over a year ago at the Stratus launch.

Early signs are promising. One example: Juniper beat Cisco in landing the NYSE account, a demanding environment in which latency cannot be tolerated when billions of stock market trades are executed daily.

Juniper, well known as the No. 2 vendor behind Cisco of routers to service providers, has been gaining steam in enterprise routers and switches as well. In enterprise routers, Juniper is No. 2 to Cisco, albeit a distant second, with 5% share of the $790 million worldwide market in the fourth quarter of 2009 compared to Cisco's 83%, according to Dell'Oro Group. HP/3Com was third at 3%.