Much has been said about the benefits and virtues of virtualisation -- not least of course by product vendors -- but it seems that now the technology is really being put to work as users start to extract real value from it. And the reasons they're doing so might surprise you.

A study of enterprises in the US, and in Asia-Pacific in a number of sectors -- including government, health care, service providers, mining and marketing -- has found that a huge percentage of companies are now deploying virtualisation in some form or other in their organisations.

Also in the mix of respondents was a range of enterprises known to have some involvement with virtualisation projects, plus some enterprise contacts from the database of Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), the research company which conducted the survey.

According to a 126-page report on the survey by EMA analyst Andi Mann, close to three-quarters of respondents were using some form of virtualisation -- the market for which is growing at 26 percent annually, according to EMA -- for test and development. So far so unsurprising, since it was with VMware Player, aimed at engineers and programmers, that VMware kick-started the modern era of virtualisation.

The next finding is that 64 percent of enterprises are using virtualisation technology in production environments, underpinning application servers and, 47 percent said, web servers. Fewer than four percent of those responding said their organisation used no virtualisation at all -- although it would be unsurprising if, in fact, that number were even smaller, given the ease with which users and developers can download and deploy virtualisation software for free these days.

Also perhaps unsurprising is the list of areas in which the technology finds itself. It's mainly for servers rather than desktops, where just five percent say that virtualisation is utilised. Windows is the preferred platform, with companies of all sizes are using too, from those with fewer than 250 employees -- the biggest percentage -- right up to the 20,000-plus big boys, according to the research.

What's most interesting is why enterprises are deploying it. The top drivers for virtualisation are business continuity and disaster recovery, according to EMA's research. Fewer than four percent said that this application was unimportant.

VMware's European technical marketing manager Richard Garsthagen agreed that this is a big driver for most of his company's customers, "especially smaller companies as it's more financially efficient."

Close on the heels of those two mission-critical applications came the more traditionally touted drivers for virtualising, including flexibility and agility (69 percent) and server consolidation (65 percent). Least important were reduced cost of software and reduced use of floor space.

Intriguingly, this appears to be a technology with few downsides. There is some training and staff overhead, with most organisations believing that they didn't have the skills in-house already, those costs are likely to be easily balanced by the savings to be made in hardware maintenance and management -- although the report didn't say so.

Apart from that, the report said none of the respondents believed that management becomes harder as a result of virtualisation. In fact, many management tasks are seen as easier, including planning for disaster recovery and software provisioning, along with management of availability, IT costs and change.

The report author Mann said there remained some opportunities for vendors in terms of products to help with management of policy-based resources and capacity planning; some security vulnerabilities need to be addressed too. Software updating and patching are other areas that IT managers need to watch.

Other than that, though, most respondents reckoned that managing a virtual environment is easier than a physical one. And there's no reason why enterprises should wait for more case studies or further validation, according to Mann.

However, others might disagree with this perhaps over-rosy picture. For example, Gartshagen said that "politics is the biggest barrier as you don't know where the server is any more as the VM moves around inside the data centre. It takes you back to the question of who's paying for it."

This was echoed by IBM's virtualisation VP Rich Lechner, who said that Big Blue's customers are reporting that seamless management of virtual machines is what they want. It means they want to be able to manage VMs in the same way as they do physical ones -- while being able to understand the link between the VM and the underlying hardware. This enables them to troubleshoot in the event of a hardware problem, said Lechner.

"Customers are also rapidly realising that management of virtualisation environment is critical," said Lechner. "Firstly, they don't want physical resources to be divorced from the virtualised environment -- in other words, they don't want a whole new set of management tools; they have enough. Secondly, they want management tools to work across broad physical resources. And thirdly, they want integration of those tools into enterprise management systems such as IBM's Tivoli."

Lechner said that there was one other big, non-technological barrier, however. "The single biggest challenge to virtualisation is a lack of skills, whether for those who are or who aren't doing virtualisation. So we're educating our services people and those of our partners to design and deploy systems for customers."

That said, none of the technology issues would appear to be barriers to adoption, according to Lechner, who reckons that Big Blue's already on its way to meeting these customer demands.

Is virtualisation cooked and ready? IBM, VMware and the respondents to the EMA survey think so. You decide.