Juniper Networks upped its offensive against rival Cisco today with the announcement of a $50 million venture fund. The Junos Innovation Fund will primarily target early and growth-stage startups that can help accelerate the speed and variety of network solutions. The company plans to deploy the fund over the next two years.

The move is likely intended to cultivate applications that can earn the “Junos Ready” moniker, in hopes of catalyzing a broad ecosystem of supporting apps. As platforms like the iPhone and Android have shown, an operating system’s selection of innovative third-party apps can help win over a lot of market share very fast.

Still a small contender in the router and switch market, Juniper has steadily eaten into Cisco’s dominant market share in recent years. Though its 6% of the network switch market is paltry compared Cisco’s 67%, the latter has seen its share decrease five percentage points since 2007, while Juniper has been on a steady upward march.

However, Juniper has also been feeling the heat from an increasing number of competitors. Alcatel-Lucent announced Tuesday morning that it surpassed Juniper in the 2009 vendor rankings of the service provider Edge Router market, marking the first time any company other than Juniper has held the number two spot in the last 10 years. HP’s recent acquisition of 3Com made it an even more dominant opponent in the switch market.

The increased heat may be part of the reason Juniper has gone on an announcement blitz recently. At the mobile Mobile World Congress in Spain last week, Juniper unveiled three products designed to make mobile connectivity faster and more media-rich on 4G networks, squaring off against Cisco’s own suite of new mobile network offerings.

Another announcement came on Valentine’s Day, when Juniper launched the “Junos Ready Software” program, whereby it endorses third-party applications built to run on its operating system.

Juniper Networks is headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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