Using sensors, Cisco can keep track of how long people are waiting at train platforms.Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Using sensors, Cisco can keep track of how long people are waiting at train platforms.

Cisco has a simple message: the world has bought so much of its equipment, why stop now?

Both Cisco Systems and one of its biggest competitors, VMware, talked about ambitious strategies Wednesday. The powerful data centers and networks they want to build, tied to millions of sensors and devices, promise to create all kinds of efficient systems with an eye on everything we do. Just as much, they talked about competing with each other.

Even before Cisco spoke, VMware was making its claim to a world where billions of devices were sensing the world and suggesting efficient actions. Rather than depending on legacy customers, VMware is counting on inspiring thousands of software developers, who will use computer networks as a platform for new business.

It is similar to the way Microsoft used outside developers to give it an edge on the personal computer, and Google used them on the Web. Networks are more specialized technologies, however, so it’s not clear they can attract a mass of outside talent. Cisco is hoping big companies will be better allies.

Speaking at a gathering of journalists and networking industry analysts, several Cisco executives outlined what they called a “$14 trillion opportunity” in bringing sensors, communications and data analysis to all the world’s traffic systems, hospitals, refineries, and other civil and business infrastructure.

“The first 10 years (of the commercial Internet) were really about transactions, and the last 10 were about interactions,” said Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology and strategy officer. “The next 10 is about processes being more efficient.”

That efficiency, she and others said, involves developing networks with enough machine intelligence to offer highly personalized experiences, big data analysis, and automated management of the overall system.

In a demonstration that blended the stirring and the slightly creepy, Cisco showed off how it has deployed wireless technology that can see how long people are waiting at train platforms, or moving through markets. Cisco is installing sensors in its own parking spaces, so people can be told where to leave their cars.

Combining these two technologies, the company showed how stores could tell prospective shoppers what the waiting time is at a checkout line, and how much parking is available at the mall. There were similar examples about managing electricity grids, tracking patients, and running safety systems on oil rigs.

Cisco has already deployed about $180 billion worth of network equipment into the world, she said, and will build hardware and software that interacts efficiently with the legacy gear, so new kinds of intelligent systems can be quickly deployed.

Backing up that message of size and scale, Pankaj Patel, Cisco’s chief development officer, noted that Cisco spent $5.5 billion on research and development in 2012, “an amount larger than the revenue of some of our competitors.” VMware’s revenue for 2012 was $4.6 billion.

Impressive for Cisco, though the company has outlined this ambition before. The real challenge may be in reaching customers at stores, dams and the D.M.V., people away from its usual customer base of network engineers.

“We’ve generally dealt with an information technology route to market,” said Robert Lloyd, Cisco’s head of sales. Now, “it’s going to be Rockwell, General Electric,” and other companies that create large industrial systems, he said, adding, “it’s a major transformation for the company.”

Ms. Warrior also talked about the strategy as a way that telecommunications providers could increase the value of their products.

VMware, in announcements it made alongside EMC, which owns most of VMware, shared the idea of really big networks tied into more of our lives and systems. VMware said it was merging its Nicira property, perhaps the most advanced network dominated by software, into its data center and security groups, and not into custom hardware, with its cloud computing and security products.

It also announced that it would use its history in server virtualization to enable customers to swap computing jobs among corporate computers and public clouds of computers, like Amazon. There was, in addition, a nod to allowing many different types of devices on its network.

What it needs to do now is inspire lots of developers, filling its networks with Cisco-like futuristic applications. That is probably part of its next big announcement.