VMware, the biggest maker of software that lets computers run different operating systems, has agreed to buy Atlanta-based AirWatch for as much as $1.54 billion, adding technology to help businesses manage and protect mobile devices.

VMware is majority owned by EMC, which has a major presence in the Triangle area.

AirWatch is privately held and venture capital backed.It raised $225 million in 2013. 

Analysts like the deal.

Richard Abslaom, analyst at Ovum, noted: “Privately owned AirWatch has been one of the clear leaders in the enterprise mobility management market, exhibiting phenomenal growth over the last few years. It now boasts 1,600 employees and 10,000 enterprise customers globally. Having received $200m in investment in early 2013 and using it to acquire Motorola’s mobility services unit, as well as pushing aggressive organic growth, the exit price will no doubt be pleasing to AirWatch’s founders and investors.”

Another analyst concurred.

“We loudly applaud this acquisition,” wrote Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, in a note to clients and reported by Bloomberg. “The strategic combination of VMware’s end-user computing technologies and AirWatch’s secure mobility management platform under one roof will add another leg to VMware’s growth stool over the coming years.”

Ovum’s Abslaom sees the deal as an mportant piece of the puzzle for VMware’s solutions.

“AirWatch’s fast growth and large customer base will have proved highly attractive to VMware, which can now also add an important array of features to its End User Computing unit,” he said. “Where VMware has specialized in mobile virtualization to manage enterprise mobile estates, AirWatch will give it tried and tested alternative features in mobile device management (MDM), mobile app management (MAM) and mobile content management (MCM).”

Big Play in Emerging Market 

VMware will pay $1.18 billion in cash and $365 million in installment payments and assumed unvested equity, the Palo Alto, California-based company said today in a statement.

The surging popularity of smartphones and tablets is forcing businesses to secure a multitude of new devices as employees move away from personal computers. AirWatch competes in the mobile-device management software market with companies including MobileIron Inc., Citrix Systems, SAP AG and Good Technology. Gartner Inc. expects the market to reach $1.6 billion in revenue this year, up from $784 million in 2012.

“As we look around our industry, mobile is global,” Sanjay Poonen, an executive vice president at VMware, wrote today in a blog post. “The world needs a robust enterprise mobility platform for the post-PC world of heterogeneous devices.”

VMware rose 2.5 percent to $99.76 at 10:27 a.m. in New York. The stock fell 4.7 percent last year, when the Russell 1000 Index gained 30 percent.

For VMware, majority-owned by EMC Corp., AirWatch marks the second acquisition of more than $1 billion in 18 months, after the 2012 purchase of Nicira, a maker of technology that helps networks work more efficiently. Citrix acquired its way into the device management market last year with the purchase of Zenprise. MobileIron and Good Technology, like AirWatch, are closely held and backed by venture capitalists.

Venture Funding

AirWatch, founded in 2003, raised its only institutional funding last year, bringing in $200 million from Insight Venture Partners and $25 million from Accel Partners. The company has more than 10,000 customers globally and 1,600 employees in nine offices around the world.

The acquisition will be funded through a combination of cash and proceeds from about $1 billion of additional debt to be provided by EMC, the world’s largest maker of storage computers. The transaction is expected to be completed late in the first quarter, according to the statement.

VMware, which had $5.84 billion of cash and short-term investments at the end of September, said it will continue with its share buyback program.

The company also said that today that fourth-quarter revenue probably rose 15 percent to $1.48 billion, excluding sales from its Pivotal Software Inc. unit. That’s the high-end of the company’s forecast range and surpasses the $1.47 billion average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The company is scheduled to release full quarterly financials on Jan. 28.