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Virtualization may be a big buzzword in IT circles this year, but it’s not as widespread as many presume.

However, its momentum is growing fast, according to the most recent information from Gartner, presented at its Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando this week.

The market research firm says that while only 16 percent of workloads are running in virtual machines today, that number will rise to around 50 percent of x86 server workloads by the end of 2012, representing about 58 million deployed machines.

And while many think of virtualization as an enterprise or data center play, Gartner says that the fastest growing market for virtual machines is the small business sector.

“While large enterprises were quick to leverage virtual machines to reduce server sprawl and power costs, as well as conserve data center space, small business started late on virtualization,” says Tom Bittman, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, in a statement.

“However, by year-end 2010, enterprises with 100-999 employees will have a higher penetration of virtual machines deployed than the Global 500,” he adds. “For years the entry point was simply too high for small enterprises, but increased competition by server vendors has enable smaller firms to embrace virtualization.”

Gartner recommends that companies start small with virtualized serve deployments but with an eye towards “a wider strategic plan that includes management and process changes.”

By starting small, IT professionals can reduce the risk and learning curve.

“The other aspect, ‘thinking big,’ means it’s important to proactively plan ahead for the major process and management changes virtualization brings – not to mention how virtualization is a path to cloud computing,” Bittman says.