Cisco's dominance in enterprise switching is legend, but HP and 3Com have put together compelling product portfolios and value stories that add up to the first real competition the switch king has faced in years, and buyers are beginning to pay attention.

For example, Quinnipiac University on Connecticut, a Cisco shop, recently upgraded its network with gear from 3Com. "Several of my peers were curious as to why we left the mother ship ... but it all fits into a risk-reward ratio," says Fred Tarca, associate vice president of information services. "We stuck with our fundamental principles of wanting a good product at the right price that is supportable, with a team and a company to back it up. Those requirements were met by 3Com."

3Com and HP's ProCurve network group say their respective gear - much of it developed within the last few years - offers better overall value in terms of price, performance, port density and power consumption.

Ron Sege, president and CEO of 3Com, says the H3C enterprise equipment his company is bringing out of China was built from the ground up in the last four years, enabling the company to take advantage of the latest ASIC and other technology advances.

And the company is trying to use its success in China to convince domestic buyers to give it another chance after it pulled out of the North American enterprise market twice. "We already have a million routers installed in China, half a million switches, and common management for the whole range of gear," Sege says.

In fact, China uses the H3C equipment to power eight out of 12 national backbones, including its transportation, education and energy networks, Sege says. "We're selling value in most cases, but value based on cost to operate.," he says. "Lower cost up front, less expensive to operate over time and higher performance to boot."

But will value be enough? Cisco has more than 70 percent of the market and says, no matter how individual boxes line up, its ace in the hole is low total cost of ownership, something it achieves with its cohesive, overarching product architecture.