You might think of Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) as a denizen of the data center, and you might think of its stock as a pure-play bet on computer networking that only egghead geeks like me could possibly care about.

Think again.

What a wicked web we weave
It's true that Cisco plays an important role in most any high-tech installation you're likely to see across the globe. Routers, switches, gateways, proxy servers, hardware firewalls -- the list goes on and on, and these are the components that make your friendly neighborhood computer network tick.

Cisco was an early supplier of these items and has remained at the forefront of its industry to this day, dwarfing the competition. Its market cap is more than eight times that of Juniper Networks (NASDAQ:JNPR), Brocade Communications Systems (NASDAQ:BRCD), including its McData acquisition, CIENA (NASDAQ:CIEN), and Foundry Networks (NASDAQ:FDRY) -- combined.

But that's not all Cisco does these days. Not content with merely moving data around corporate networks, the public Internet, and wherever else computers might talk to each other, Cisco is moving into your house.

Linksys is one of the largest home networking brands on the market. It's a Cisco property now. Do you have a Scientific-Atlanta digital cable box at home? Cisco again. The company has a vision for "the evolution of networking from connectivity products to intelligent systems" and wants to sell into every part of that spectrum -- from internal business communications, through business-to-consumer data, and all the way to managing your private data transfer needs. It's a strategy eerily reminiscent of what Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is doing on the software and services side.

It starts at the top
In his 2006 letter to shareholders, CEO John Chambers said that Cisco's current growth comes from business decisions made three to five years ago. This is a management team with a supremely long-term focus, and with the market presence and know-how to forecast future business needs better than anyone else. So if you see the company doing things that make no sense today, don't look for an explanation two or three quarters down the road. It'll take much longer than that, but the payoff is likely to be pretty good.

For example, we're on the verge of a complete revolution in how entertainment and other media are brought to the consumer. Chambers and company saw this coming years ago, hence the Scientific-Atlanta and Linksys acquisitions. Next time you buy a massive-screen television, don't be surprised if it comes with a built-in wireless access system designed to pull in music and videos from your computer or directly from the Net -- and it's all made possible by those two Cisco brands.

Also, don't forget that all that tasty video traffic drives increased bandwidth use across all kinds of networks, so Cisco benefits twice as network providers upgrade their infrastructures to keep up with demand. Sweet!

Foolish finale
All of these things -- long-term vision, lots of competitive advantages in multiple markets, great management -- make Cisco an ideal Foolish investment. I calculate the stock to be undervalued. Maybe it's because management's long-term plans don't play well to the analysts and the short-term speculating crowd, I don't know.

This isn't a buy recommendation by any means -- any good Fool knows to do his or her own homework before handing in that market order. But Cisco certainly deserves a place on your watch list, even if you don't quite get the whole networking thing. The other parts of the business are so compelling that you might just figure out the difference between a router and a switch in due time, just by following the news. We're all here to learn.

Once more, with feeling:  

See what your fellow Fools think about Cisco these days in our Motley Fool CAPS intelligent investor network. Nearly 2,500 players have weighed in on Cisco, making it a four-star stock today.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here, because he keeps writing about the good ones. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure belongs in your living room, too.