No matter what rival switch suppliers might say - and you pretty much know it's not going to be complimentary - Juniper Network's big splash into the LAN switching business cannot be discounted. The company already has a proven track record in routing, and plenty of customers there - the question is how well it can turn that to its advantage.

The opportunity derives from an impending 'inflection point' towards a third generation of networking, says Hitesh Sheth, the executive VP and general manager in charge of Juniper's switching lines.

He says that the arrival of unified communications, SaaS (software-as-a-service), SOA (service oriented architectures), and the like, means that converged global networks have become critical to business success - and so therefore has network reliability.

"Five years ago, I'm not sure enterprise customers felt the pain for a high performance network as they do now" he says. "They'd say 'Yes, but I can get by.' Today, the robustness of your network is really really crucial."

Juniper's intention to enter this market has not exactly been secret. "Over the last couple of years I've heard two questions: 'When are you getting into switching?' and 'Who are you going to buy?'," Sheth says.

He adds that Juniper took the view that it wasn't worth buying a second-tier vendor for its technology, which would then have to be integrated with its own - even though developing its own EX series stackable and chassis-based switches took two years.

"We made a very conscious decision to build rather than buy. It would have been a mistake if we'd bought a switching vendor," he says. "In security, we bought a market leader, NetScreen, but in switching there's no market leader apart from Cisco."

He claims that many of the EX's advantages stem from it running the same JunOS operating software as the company's routers.

"The common software delivers significant simplicity and a common element management system," he argues. "And it allows five-nines reliability, which in turn allows the IT manager to collapse the network and deploy fewer layers.

"It's a single source code base, it has to be compiled for different processors so the binaries are different, and some platforms don't get some modules, but it means that if I'm developing a new feature and it's needed on five platforms, I only have to develop it once. Other suppliers might well have to write it five times."

The other key element of that third-generation network is security, Sheth says, dismissing criticism that the switches lack their own application intelligence.

"You need a sense of who the user is, where they're at and what they're using to get on the network," he says. "We have day-one integration with UAC [Juniper's Unified Access Controller security appliance]. The modular EX switches also have technology from our IPS, using Juniper silicon and natively available on every port."

There is a JunOS software development kit, which would allow new capabilities - for instance, virus scanning or dynamic traffic management - to be added to both switches and routers, he notes.

"Down the road we will bolt other firewall capabilities onto JunOS," he continues. "We envision a single common policy and common policy management across the whole infrastructure."

He concludes: "The time has come for the network to catch up with the applications. Current networks are complex and not reliable. We intend to bring our carrier-class reliability, integrated security and operational simplicity to switching."