To a network administrator planning out his first enterprise-level network, hardware is crucial: you need hardware that can run for years without downtime, almost never fail, and have an OS and features that will let you perform the most complex and convoluted networking hoops that unforeseen problems and/or management will inevitably make you run through. For many years, and for many experts, there has always been only one provider that can accomplish all of the above without fail: Cisco Systems.
Though Cisco has been entrenched as the networking king for many years, another name has appeared in the running for new networking equipment in enterprise-level environments: Juniper Networks. Juniper’s networking equipment has lately been taking off in enterprise-level environments, due to administrators noticing their high reliability and speed. The price point is another attractive feature; new Juniper switches, routers, and firewalls can be up to half the price of their Cisco equivalents. Many networking administrators are wondering if Juniper measures up to Cisco – and if in fact Juniper does, it may not be a bad idea to save the money when designing a new networking environment.
This does, of course, put the new network administrator in a difficult position: after all, he is designing a network that will be used for the next decade or so, and possibly longer. What to choose?
The answers always depends (I bet you’re tired of this response!). The fact of the matter is this: Cisco and Juniper are, at least at present, competing on a tangent. While both manufacture and advertise products for networking, each one is focused on different goals and feature sets.
Flexibility vs. Specialty
The choice between Cisco and Juniper boils down to a few key decisions and requirements, and an example of Cisco and Juniper’s differing mentalities on a subject are quite relevant here. Cisco, for its part, has for years been manufacturing “jack-of-all-trades” machines, for the most part; its routers and firewalls are designed to be able to do a great deal of things beyond routing and firewalling, respectively. Cisco ASAs can function as routers for small businesses, and Cisco routers often contain VPN, remote entry, and even Ethernet switch add-ons. Recently, in fact, it has even started to roll out telephony functions in some of its routers.
The intent of all this is clear: Cisco is creating versatile, multi-purpose boxes. An enterprise may not need eight different machines for their firewall, VPN, router, etc. and so forth; they just need one box that saves space and unifies everything in a clear, clean way.
Contrast this with Juniper, which focuses on specializing their boxes as much as possible for speed. If you buy a Juniper router, you’re getting a Juniper router: there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The company has recently been experimenting with Cisco’s model of offering more versatile boxes, but for the most part if you’re buying a Juniper box you need it for specialization and speed.
This type of functionality has made them especially popular with organizations that need hyper-fast core routers for their networks, like Internet Service Providers or content-distribution firms. These are organizations that handle terabytes upon terabytes a day, and the stability and specialization offered by Juniper’s core routers are very useful indeed.
Making the choice between Cisco and Juniper, then, boils down to that difference in ideology: do you need the feature-full, edge routing mentality that goes along with Cisco’s offerings or do you need a stable, core routing, specialized software architecture like that provided by Juniper?
For many enterprises, especially those that are smaller, the Cisco option may be the better choice. They may need a Cisco router to serve different functions and have its function changed on-the-fly, making Cisco’s versatility more attractive. Another consideration for them may be Cisco’s ubiquity; for small enterprises, it may simply make practical sense to choose a vendor that more people are familiar with, and thus have a better chance of finding an employee who has significant experience with the technology in question.
For companies like Internet Service providers, on the other hand, Juniper’s speed and specialization may be a better fit to the type of data routing and throughput required on a day-to-day basis in their organization. The networking structure of a giant data center or ISP isn’t going to change all that often, and thus the versatility in the core of the operation isn’t as necessary as it might be elsewhere; the speed of a Juniper core router may be the better option here.
Cisco is, for many, still the first name in networking: they were the first into the enterprise networking world and are still the majority seller when it comes to units sold for enterprise and small business networking due to the versatility and feature set.
Juniper has, however, in recent years made significant strides in coming at the problem from a different angle: they specialize their hardware towards larger enterprises, like cloud centers and internet service providers, who need the speed to process the large amounts of data running through them.
In the end, then, the decision to populate your networking racks must depend on your own experience, needs, and planning. Whether it’s Cisco or Juniper, make sure to plan ahead and buy the routing equipment that you need to ensure the best performance and usability for your future networking environment!