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As we move into 2008 it’s pretty clear that Juniper Networks is back from the edge of extinction, but whether the company will morph into anything more than a niche player in the networking space is far from certain.

After years of first denying the need to be in the Ethernet switch business and then opting to build rather than buy the technology, Juniper this past week finally jumped into a multi-billion market that has already pretty much passed it by.

That doesn’t mean the Juniper doesn’t have a first class switch. It’s just not that much better than anything that Cisco either offers today or will shortly, and whether most customers would consider changing. And from a channel perspective, it’s nice that Juniper can now finally bundle a router and switch sales together, but the channel has moved way past that kind of selling.

Today, if you ask solution providers what they want from networking companies they will say they need applications that will drive the purchasing of the underlying network hardware. Cisco is making massive investments in these areas while Juniper touts the potential of an open architecture that some ISVs might theoretically use one day to build a compelling application. The problem is the examples Juniper uses to support that theory are IBM, which will build a security managed service on top of the Juniper platform to compete with the rest of the channel, and Microsoft, which basically just tipped its hat to Juniper for supporting its Network Access Control effort that competes with an alternative architecture from Cisco.

No solution provider partners actually took the stage at the Juniper Networks Global Enterprise Event yesterday, in support of the vendor’s entry into the Ethernet switch market. However, there’s always been a class of partners that prefer to sell anything other than Cisco because it gives them a point of differentiation in a world where there are a lot of partners selling Cisco. But it’s unlikely that the advent of a Juniper switch is going to result in any high shifts in market share as the vast majority in an already maturing marketplace will opt to stay where they are.

The other question this whole launch of a Juniper-built switch raises is if it was so important for Juniper to build its own switch, why did the company buy Netscreen, Peribit Networks, Redline Networks and Funk Software? It would seem that the integration work with the JunoOS is still a work in progress across all the acquisitions to one degree or another, so maybe in retrospect building its own products would have been the right decision back then as well.

None of these issues were really address this week by Juniper management so what we got was a whole lot of hyperbole. But when all is said and done, you have to wonder how much sound and fury there is on Juniper’s move into Ethernet switching versus, say, actual significance.