Redhat

Image source: Red Hat.

Open-source software vendor Red Hat (NYSE:RHT) had a mighty fine year in 2015. The company enjoyed four strong earnings reports, a new CFO imported from industry giant Cisco Systems, and other rays of sunlight along the way. Red Hat shares rose 19.8%, full-year earnings increased by 17%, and free cash flows grew 20% larger.

The question on Red Hat investors' minds right now is simple: Can the company meet or beat the fantastic performance of yesteryear? And if so, could 2016 even become Red Hat's best year ever?

What are we talking about here?
Before diving into the answers, let's define the questions a little bit better.

In some ways, Red Hat doesn't stand a chance at delivering its best performance ever. For example, share prices more than tripled in 2004, when this was just another small-cap with freely swinging share prices. Pulling off another triple in 2016 would mean adding some $27 billion to Red Hat's market cap. The bigger you grow, the harder it is to deliver massive percentage leaps. The stock is also off to a disappointing start in 2016, falling more than 12% in January.

But we can talk about revenue growth, rising earnings, and stronger cash flows. And while it's tougher to measure intangible values like mainstream acceptance and mind share, these topics are arguably more important for Red Hat investors than the plain numbers.

What you need to know
Let's get one key fact out of the way: Red Hat doesn't care too much whether the overall economy is going up, down, or sideways.

When times are good, Red Hat enjoys boosted corporate IT budgets just as much as the next enterprise software vendor. Investors have absolutely no reason to hope for a weak macroeconomic environment, because the rising tide will lift this boat as well.

In more difficult eras, on the other hand, Red Hat tends to do well even as its peers suffer. Tighter corporate belts give IT directors an excuse to start looking at cost savings and stable long-term solutions -- two areas where Red Hat's chosen business model often outperforms traditional enterprise software businesses.

Finally, Red Hat runs a very lean operation. In geographical markets with strong sales, the company also spends money locally on marketing and R&D. The end result: A business model that's resistant to currency exchange effects that bring other global corporations to their knees. The strategy is sturdy enough that Red Hat doesn't need to hedge against currency swings at all.

Compare and contrast Red Hat's revenue and cash flow growth with Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) over the last decade, a period that includes the dreaded economic meltdown of 2008. In good times or bad, the smaller Linux vendor has consistently delivered rising revenue, and cash flow has multiplied. The Windows giant's results have swayed along with the economic environment to a much greater degree:

RHT Revenue (TTM) Chart

RHT Revenue (TTM) data by YCharts.

What will drive Red Hat in 2016?
2015 was another example of Red Hat rising while the market as a whole struggled. Sure, fair-weather business is good for the company, but it separates further from its rivals when conditions are tougher.

In other words, Red Hat shares are more likely to absolutely crush the market in a generally negative year. Judging by the action in January, the stars may indeed be aligning that way. And while it's true that Red Hat shares have underperformed the S&P 500 benchmark so far, keep in mind that the proof is in the pudding. This stock tends to jump on actual results proving the doubters wrong, and Red Hat's first report this calendar year will come in March.

So if you're looking for market-beating stock performance, you want the weak general market trend to continue.

Otherwise, you should expect continued growth in sales, earnings, and cash flows either way. Red Hat's open-source software tools have already entered the mainstream in a big way. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a fully supported operating system on every mid-range and big iron server line I can think of, and with the addition of Microsoft's Windows Azure in the third quarter, every cloud-computing platform that matters.

I'm not looking for any particular catalysts to drive this stock in 2016. It's more about continuing down the same steady road as before, with a longer-term target painted on the Internet of Things market. The stock won't triple this year, but Red Hat should continue delivering record revenue and cash flow anyhow. And I don't care what the economy is doing meanwhile.

Anders Bylund owns shares of Red Hat. The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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