Red Hat is a big business, but it still finds time to experiment.
Just in the past couple of years, for example, the Raleigh-based software company has joined forces with Boston Children's Hospital and UNICEF to lend a hand with data projects and perhaps learn a few things along the way.
The Boston Children's project has seen Red Hat help a team from the hospital work with imaging data from MRIs through the Mass Open Cloud, a public data collection in Massachusetts developed by a consortium of university, industry and government group.
To date, the project has worked only with images where all identification has been removed, but Red Hat is convinced that at some point it's "going to be critical for the future of computing" to find ways to help researchers work with private data, "safely and without compromising privacy," said Hugh Brock, the Red Hat engineering director who heads the company's research partnership with Boston University.
Meanwhile, another group at Red Hat pitched in this spring to help UNICEF — the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund — improve an online database that maps information about schools in several South American, African and Central Asian countries.
UNICEF is trying to come up with ways to crunch public and private data to figure out how it can best deploy money to serve the social good, said Mike Walker, director of Red Hat's Open Innovation Labs.
Along with bolstering Red Hat's commitment to working with charitable organizations, the work with UNICEF underscored that they "simply have different requirements" than business or government clients when it comes to putting a priority "on the ability to collaborate and continue to bring in different collaborators" as a big-data project unfolds, Walker said.
Red Hat's current business strategy depends on helping clients work with hybrid cloud systems, combining data from multiple public and private data repositories. The company leans on open-source software including the Linux operating system and other tools to operate servers and interact with cloud services.
The strategy's working so far, as sales of software subscriptions are both up compared to levels from a year ago. On Thursday, Red Hat reported earning a $113.2 million profit in the first quarter of fiscal 2018-19, up 50 percent from the first quarter a year ago.
Down at the level of users like Boston Children's Hospital, the issue's not necessarily about public clouds versus private ones. Rather, it's about keeping control of their data, said Ellen Grant, director of the hospital's fetal-neonatal neuroimaging and developmental science center.
In putting together the imaging project, "we were interested in partnering with a team that doesn't want our data, but will help us post data, process it and maintain it in an environment that's highly secure," Grant said. "This is in contrast to most of the people who've approached us about medical data sets. Most want us to give them our data and have no plans to create an infrastructure."
Still, it's important to be able to exchange data because the more data there is, the easier it can be to draw meaningful statistical insights from it, she said.
For example, with rare disease it would help to be able to consider information from several hospitals rather than just one to figure out what might be the best treatment plan. That requires "a place where we combine enough data to make meaningful comments about disease processes and better predict outcomes," she said.
Grant and Brock stressed that the Red Hat/Boston Children's collaboration for now is just a research project, one meant to develop the infrastructure and software interfaces that could eventually evolve into diagnostic tools.
As for the project with UNICEF, Red Hat engineers spent eight weeks working with agency staffers to build the prototype of a new mapping tool for the school data. The project's code is publicly available, and Walker expects the "open source community" will continue to refine it and that UNICEF will add more data to it.
Red Hat officials are "very proud" of both projects, said Eric Shander, the company's chief financial officer.
"At the core, it's about how open source, technology and our technology in general can bring a lot of these causes forward and make some significant impacts for humankind," Shander said.