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How do you beat Cisco Systems Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO) in the networking industry? I think I found the answer -- or at least some clues -- at the F5 Networks Partner Summit in New Orleans.

I'm not suggesting that F5 (NASDAQ:FFIV) (approaching $600 million in annual revenue) will someday overtake Cisco (the $29.5 billion titan). But F5 has somehow carved a niche for itself promoting application-aware networks, delivering 22 consecutive quarters of sequential revenue growth.

How has F5 succeeded where so many others have failed? Here are some key lessons.

First, never go head-to-head against Cisco on multiple fronts. The results -- as Nortel Networks (NT) and Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) have learned -- are often ugly for shareholders.

Instead, find a niche and go narrow and deep. It's an all-or-nothing bet, but if you execute on your vision you could strike oil.

So far, F5 is executing on its "application delivery network" vision. Customers typically adopt F5's technology to improve the performance of their Web 2.0 applications or more traditional apps from Microsoft, Oracle and SAP.

But F5 hasn't stopped there. F5 also has an online community -- called DevCentral -- that has attracted 30,000 members. That's no small achievement.

Despite the hype, most social networks fail because they don't attract members, or they lose momentum when members lose interest in the topic at hand.

In stark contrast, F5's community appears to have passionate members who discuss problems, best practices and tips for deploying F5's products. The site's look-and-feel inspires people to interact, rather than sit back and observe.

DevCentral is a lot like an open source developer community. And that's exactly the point. The more often people come back, the more likely they are to embrace F5's future products.

Sure, Cisco has online communities as well. But F5 -- and its DevCentral community members -- seem more than happy to hang out in their own networking niche.

Disclosure: none