So you think that data networking will beat the market for years to come, as high-definition video and other bandwidth-hungry applications proliferate in the real world? Can't blame you. But if you want to ride that wave, how do you pick a networking specialist to invest in? That's the real trick.

First off, you can choose sides based on current market presence and profitability. This division puts Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) and Juniper Networks (NASDAQ:JNPR) head and shoulders above the likes of JDS Uniphase (NASDAQ:JDSU) and CIENA (NASDAQ:CIEN). The big guys are, well, big and profitable. The smaller players seem to lack the scale to turn a profit today. As turnaround candidates or up-and-comers, JDSU and Ciena might float your boat. But proven winners, they're not.

Cisco is much bigger than Juniper, but both are big enough to turn a profit. The main difference between the two, besides economies of scale, is a difference in target markets. Cisco rules the data center for thousands of enterprise-class corporations, while Juniper is still breaking into that market. For long-haul data transfer needs, the situation is reversed. Juniper is arguably the top dog when data-hungry service providers like Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T) need to improve their networks.

From that perspective, you could argue that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is Juniper's best friend right now. The more strained AT&T's national and global networks become under the data-gobbling onslaught from iPhones and soon-to-come iPads, the more hardware AT&T needs to buy from Juniper to rectify the problems.

In the fourth quarter of 2009, Juniper delivered 2% year-over-year sales growth to end up at $941 million, while non-GAAP earnings stayed flat year over year at $0.32 per share. Cisco is expected to do a little bit better than that in next week's report, but this one was good enough to lift both stocks on a generally flat market day. I see that as a vote of confidence for the networking sector as a whole.

Pick your poison any way you want; all I can do is to describe the battlefield for you. Can you do better? Use the comment box at will, captain.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.