System administration and cisco support are key areas in which you will want to drill down for comparison purposes. The best way to understand this difference is to actually log into both systems and do something useful like add a user. ShoreTel has a single web portal in which the system definition is configured and through which adds, moves and changes are made. This is one very key difference in the architectures of these solutions. Remember, the ShoreTel is a self-contained solution that includes the Voice Mail system. The Cisco solution requires a separate Unity Connector voice messaging system. So when adding a user for example, in the ShoreTel you would create your user and simultaneously create the directory listing and voice mailbox. In Cisco this would be a separately configured system administration interface.
CISCO actually has a family of VoIP solutions under the brand banner of Cisco Unified Call Manager. For example, they have a small 24-user system that is marketed under the model 320W. The next model up would be the UC500 series, then the CUCM-Express and finally the CUCM. Even the CUCM has different models. The most recent edition, the Cisco Unified Call Manager Business Edition Version 8 is a 500 seat, 5 site variation of the full blown 40,000 user Cisco Unified Call Manager. Since ShoreTel actually has only one product family that can take you from 25-10,000 users, I chose to use the Cisco Unified Call Manager Business Edition (CUCM BE8) as our comparison product.
Both product lines support a range of Unified Communications Options that include Contact Center, Presence, IM, Video Conferencing and Microsoft Integration. The list of options goes on and on, so where do we draw the line in our comparison? My thinking is that we stay focused on the basics: the telephone and Voice Messaging System. In this way we can look at the two architectures and free ourselves from the additional servers most of the options will require. Lets keep it simple!
ShoreTel is still using Microsoft Servers though one might project a product road map in which they move to Linux. Historically, ShoreTel used Microsoft Access as the configuration database for its phone system and call detail records. By Version 8 ShoreTel had moved from Microsoft Access to MySQL for all of its database requirements. This transition was made with nominal breakage and early ShoreTel adopters can continue to upgrade to later versions of ShoreTel. CISCO database was built on Microsoft SQL engine. Cisco release 4.2 ran on Windows 2000 and Version 4.3 was implemented on MCS OS 2003 a Cisco proprietary version of Microsoft. With the release of CUCM 5, Cisco moved to the IBM Informix database running on a Linux engine (Cisco VOS). Cisco 6 moved to Linux Red Hat Enterprise and would no longer support the previous Windows based Call Managers. Cisco Version 8 was introduced in 2010 and is now the current release for the entire CUCM product line.