Network managers may well find an unfamiliar name appearing in tenders over the next few weeks and months. Chinese manufacturer Huawei Technologies is getting ready for a big push into the UK, signing up distributor Zycko to help it crack the reseller market here.

The scale of Huawei's ambitions are shown by its claims to be a serious rival - the only serious rival, perhaps - for Cisco, now that it has settled its legal battle with the US networking giant. It reckons it has an end-to-end networking range capable of being pitched directly against Cisco, and adds that it is no minnow itself, with turnover of $5.58 billion in 2004, up 43 percent from 2003.

What it of course lacks is presence and brand recognition outside China, but Huawei's UK channel consultant Darragh Richardson says the company has the determination and the resources to fix that. He says Huawei has already been operating in the UK for just over three years, but its big contract win earlier this year in

In 2003 the company formed a joint venture with 3Com, the plan being for Huawei (which unfortunately sounds a bit like Who Are We?) to do most of the design and build, while 3Com provide the funding, and then both partners would take the products to market. One gets the sense that the deal hasn't been quite as profitable as either party would like, though.

"3Com is known as cheap low-end equipment, but it's not a good story into the enterprise as it didn't have an end-to-end range from voice to optical," says Richardson. "Huawei has a more forceful voice in the market."

Then again, it could just be that enterprise network and IT managers have long memories and still haven't forgiven 3Com for the way it abandoned them five years ago - something which 3Com staffers have since said the company now much regrets doing.

Either way, Richardson, who used to be 3Com's UK marketing director, claims that despite the apparent overlap the two vendors don't address quite the same markets. "Huawei is better known in the large enterprise and telco space," he says. "We don't have exactly the same products [as 3Com], they're common hardware but each company has its own management software and so on. Also, Huawei doesn't have older switches to maintain compatibility with."

Seen from a-VAR
So far the company has been selling to large enterprises and ISPs, Richardson says, and is now looking to add VARs to its list in order to reach other customers. He acknowledges that it's not a well known name, and hopes that the approval conferred by the BT 21CN deal will help fix that.

He adds that Huawei's latest UK distributor Zycko will also play a key part in trying to raise the company's profile - it has a six-figure sum's worth of Huawei equipment at its demo site in Cirencester.

Zycko's founders have a background in Cisco distribution, says David Galton-Fenzi, the distributor's group sales director. He adds that Zycko already has voice and video products and a data storage business, and was looking for a weighty vendor with an end-to-end networking range that could be pitched directly against Cisco.

"Cisco's channel has been too successful in some ways - there's too many partners in the same area," he says. "We've had cases where out of 10 tenders, eight came back with Cisco quotes. Cisco then knows it will win the business anyway, so it doesn't try. Huawei represents serious competition."

He says Zycko looked at several other suppliers but none fitted the bill: "Juniper had no switches, Extreme struggled in the mid to low-end. Then there's Nortel, HP and so on - there's many vendors out there whose products compete with Cisco in one area, but they can't compete across the board."

Richardson adds that 3Com's historical strength in the US makes Western Europe - and the UK in particular - Huawei's biggest export opportunity.

"It's datacomms products - switches, routers, firewalls - the equivalent of [Cisco 12000 series] GSR and Catalyst 6500 down to SOHO switches," he says. "We wanted to launch in a digestible fashion - we are better known for our success in the high end backbone with optical and fixed-line products, and we have access devices too, but now we also have an existing platform of core and edge switches that works in 3Com and China.

"The first thing people ask is on the credibility front, and our successes in the Far East won't have the same traction as BT. If we are known for anything, it's for running huge telco backbones," he says. "It's not cheap and cheerful. Our best sales tool is to take people out to Shenzen and show them the quality of the development and manufacturing that's going on - we do that on a regular basis."

How successful that tactic will be outside the telco market remains to be seen - it's always difficult taking on a dominant competitor, even if your products are better. Of course Cisco needs competition to keep it on its toes, the danger for Huawei is if it only gets used to beat Cisco down on price.