The worst kept secret in switching is a secret no more. Juniper Networks has dived headlong into the enterprise market by unveiling a line of Ethernet switches it claims will change the current modus operandi of corporate networking.

The switches, developed under the code name 'Hurricane,' are the Juniper EX line of modular, chassis and fixed-configuration stackable devices.

At the high end, EX can support 128 10Gbit Ethernet ports. As many as 10 of the fixed-configuration stackables can be interconnected into a virtual chassis of 480Gbit Ethernet ports. The switches support features including high availability and network access control, which enables the switches to enforce access policies rather than rely on firewalls, VPN gateways or other vendors' switches.

Juniper also announced partnerships with IBM, Microsoft and Oracle in an effort to kick-start its assault on the enterprise switching market. These vendors have pledged varying degrees of software and application integration and interoperability with the new Juniper platforms.

Juniper claims it can exploit its heritage in high-performance routing, single operating-system architectures and enterprise-security leadership perhaps to grab as much market share from Cisco in switching as it did in carrier routing. Juniper took up to a third of Cisco's share in carrier routing a few years after it started up business in 1997.

Switching will be a much more daunting task, with Cisco controlling two-thirds or more of the market, and earlier this week making a big splash of its own with a powerful new datacentre switch, called the Nexus 7000. Indeed, pundits refer to the Ethernet switching market as Cisco and the Seven Dwarfs.

Juniper is determined not to become the eighth dwarf by unleashing a line of switches that share a common heritage with the company's routers and NetScreen firewall and VPN products. The commonality among core and edge routers, switches and firewalls should provide consistent performance and manageability end-to-end, reducing operating costs and downtime, Juniper officials say.

That heritage is what prompted Juniper to spend two years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing the EX line in-house instead of acquiring one of the other switch vendors. Company officials acknowledged they did contemplate acquiring a switch company and evaluated virtually all of them, but the gating factor came down to silicon, software and other requirements needed for high-performance computing.

"It's in the DNA of the people that get up every day and come to the buildings," said Scott Kriens, Juniper CEO. "It positions us to execute."

Execution will be key because none of Cisco's other competitors have been able to make a significant dent in the giant's market share. Juniper claims it will not be marginalised like the others because it now can offer a system of routers, switches and firewalls instead of point products, which allows it to become a "strategic partner" with the customer, says Hitesh Sheth, Juniper executive vice president and general manager.

Sheth says Juniper plans to tap three main veins to establish its beachhead in enterprise switching - its base of enterprise routing, the NetScreen installed base and dissatisfied Cisco customers. Kriens says Juniper already is entrenched in 96 of the Fortune 100 companies.

Analysts say Juniper has a technologically credible offering with the EX. There nonetheless are still hurdles in creating value in a multivendor environment, they say. "If they can do what they say they can do, they're on the short list now," says IDC's Abner Germanow. "A single operating system is huge. A single interface and functionality brings a level of simplicity. But it assumes your entire network is built with one box. If the EX is in one place in the network, how does that help your network?"

Germanow also notes that Cisco has a vast installed base it can continue to sell into for years. "Juniper has to build that base," he says.