Several tech stocks generated spectacular triple-digit percentage returns in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the digitization of enterprises. However, you shouldn't expect such impressive gains to repeat to the same extent in 2021 since their valuations have likely become stretched. It's a much wiser strategy to invest in stocks with a long-term horizon in mind rather than trying to find some short-term gain. 

If you have your emergency fund fully stocked, your bills are all paid, and you have the wherewithal to set aside $5,000 to buy stocks that you intend to hold long term, you should consider these three tech companies with the potential to gain big. Here's why.

1. Check Point Software

The trend of private and public entities digitizing their operations and the resulting increase in demand for computing infrastructures shows no sign of slowing for many years to come. Nor does the potential for bad actors (and nefarious governments) to exploit vulnerabilities in those computing operations.

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A recent example of this is the SolarWinds hack that potentially compromised thousands of organizations (including U.S. federal agencies). This example and others illustrate why strong cybersecurity isn't optional and why strong cybersecurity companies have long-term potential. The research outfit Allied Market Research estimated that the cybersecurity market should grow at a compound annual rate of 9.4% through 2027.

Check Point Software (NASDAQ:CHKP) is set to capture a part of that large growing market. The legacy cybersecurity vendor offers a broad range of tools, such as firewalls and endpoint protection software. In addition, it has been developing cloud-based cybersecurity offerings thanks to internal developments and small acquisitions. For instance, it acquired the cloud cybersecurity start-up Odo Security in September to secure and simplify remote access to enterprise applications.

But because of its transition from its large legacy businesses to cloud cybersecurity, strong revenue growth has yet to materialize. During the last quarter, revenue increased by 5% year over year to $509 million. Thanks to its mature portfolio, however, the company generated impressive operating profits of $231 million, or 45% of revenue.

Given its huge profitability and prudent acquisitions, Check Point managed to accumulate $3.9 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities -- and no debt -- at the end of the last quarter, which will allow the company to withstand any potentially prolonged recession and keep scaling acquisitions over the long term.

With the stock trading at 18 times forward earnings, the stock price is reasonable and the long-term opportunity for investors is attractive.

2. Cisco Systems

Like Check Point, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) must deal with a legacy hardware portfolio that isn't producing as well. To offset its declining businesses, it has been transitioning to subscription-based software offerings over the last several years. For instance, it has been improving its video communications tool WebEx to remain relevant in the unified communications market.

However, because of the company's huge scale, tangible results have yet to materialize. During the last 12 months, revenue declined 8% year over year to $48.1 billion. Still, Cisco was able to generate a strong operating margin of 28.1% during that time frame, which led to operating profits of $13.5 billion. It also maintained a rock-solid balance sheet with $15.4 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and investments in excess of total debt at the end of last quarter.

The company's operations should profit from the long-term growth opportunities represented by the emerging networking technologies of 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and 400G. Cisco products are essential to the workings of all these emerging technologies.

At 14 times forward earnings, the tech stock is fairly valued and offers solid upside potential for patient investors.

3. Cloudera

In contrast with Cisco and Check Point, the big data specialist Cloudera (NYSE:CLDR) doesn't have to deal with legacy hardware products. Over the last several years, the company has leveraged open-source software to propose enterprise-grade solutions for customers to manage and analyze their data using their on-premises computing capabilities.

So far, the company has lacked a solution to address the big-data cloud market that represents a significant growth opportunity. For instance, the research outfit MarketsandMarkets anticipates the global big-data-as-a-service market to grow at a compound annual rate of 30.5%, hitting $42.7 billion a year by 2024. Cloudera's revenue grew by only 10% to $217.9 million during the last quarter, which paled in comparison to the spectacular triple-digit percentage revenue growth the cloud-native big data competitor Snowflake generated during the same time frame.

However, Cloudera recently finalized and released its cloud platform service to capture a part of that big-data cloud market. Indeed, with its hybrid cloud offering customers can manage and analyze their data on any combination of private and public clouds. 

Despite Cloudera's solid long-term potential, the market still values the company at a reasonable forward price-to-sales ratio of five, based on the midpoint of management's revenue guidance range. That represents an attractive long-term opportunity for investors looking for exposure to the growing big-data cloud market.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.