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Red Hat grows, but can it profit from free?

Commercial Linux distributor Red Hat continues to tout its success, and the widespread adoption of open source, a day after reporting its 51st consecutive quarter of revenue growth. Companies have moved past the mindset of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who more than a decade ago called the Linux platform a "cancer," Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst wrote on Friday.

"Today, it is almost impossible to name a major player in IT that has not embraced open source," Whitehurst wrote on the company's blog.

Describing Red Hat as an "early leader" in open source and cloud platforms, Whitehurst noted that Red Hat counts 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies as customers. But the question of how much a company with products based on freely available, easily adopted platforms can grow remains.

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Red Hat's biggest sales source is subscriptions for support and services on its Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat JBoss Middleware. Roughly $395 million of Red Hat's $456 million in quarterly revenue reported yesterday came from subscriptions. But the company's revenue, and market cap, still pale in comparison to the traditional industry giants.

Red Hat is sustainable because it runs unique products that it engineers for clients, Whitehurst told CNBC in a statement. He made the distinction between "free" and "freely available," as the open source code provides a foundation for Red Hat products, to which customers pay a subscription.

"Our products continue to both take share from competitive platforms and win a disproportionate share of new work loads," Whitehurst said.

Reuters contributed to this report.