Last reviewed on November 7, 2013   —  26 Comments

A new Outlook 365 Exchange Online user is struggling with rules.

I’m trying to figure out the hierarchy actions of the rules. I need to have email messages with exact subject detail sent to a specific folder. I also noticed that some rules are server based and are done first before leaving the ‘cloud’ and that rules on OWA seem to conflict with those set in Outlook.

If Outlook is open, the rules should be processed in the order listed, but when Outlook is closed, the server rules are applied. When you create rules in OWA, only server rules are supported.

Rules that have actions that require Outlook are client side rules and only run if Outlook is running. This includes moving messages to local pst files, adding a category or a flag. If a server rule moves a message when Outlook is closed, the client side rules that might apply to the message won’t fire.

Suppose, for example that there are two rules. The first moves any message with “abc” in the subject to Folder A and the second rule moves messages sent from “” to Folder B. What happens if I receive a message from Microsoft that has “xyz” in the subject?

In this case, it depends if you are using Stop Processing with the first rule. When the message arrives, it’s processed by the rules in the order they are listed and the message is checked against all rules unless a rule includes Stop Processing. With the Stop Processing action added, when a message matches the rule, Outlook stops looking at the remaining rules and moves on to test the next message. If you don’t want a copy of the message in Folder A and one in Folder B, you need to use Stop Processing in Rule 1.

Client or Server Rules?

You can divide rules into two types – server-side and client-only. Server-side rules are handled entirely by the Exchange Server, independent of the state of the Outlook client. Client-only rules do not execute until the user who created the rule logs in to the Outlook client with the same profile used to create the rule.

Client and Server Rules

Whether a rule is server-based or client-based depends on the exact conditions and actions for that rule.

Certain rules are always client-only – those that involve some element from the Outlook client that does not exist on the Exchange Server. The following table classifies these according to whether they depend on Outlook features, client files or the mail profile. The last group contains something of a surprise: A rule to copy to a public folder fires only when the client is logged in with the profile that created the rule.

TIP: Try forwarding the message to the public folder instead. That rule always fires on the server.

Rule conditions or actions Examples
Conditions using Outlook client features With specific words in recipient’s address
With specific words in sender’s address
Flagged for action
Assigned to category
With specific words in the subject or message — if you specify multiple phrases

Actions using Outlook client features

Notify me using a specific message
Flag message for action
Clear the Message Flag
Assign it to a category
Play a sound

Actions that use client files

Move it to the specified folder (in a .pst file)
Move a copy to the specified folder (in a .pst file)
Reply using a specific template
Perform a custom action
Mark as Read

Actions dependent on the profile used to create the rule

Move it to the specified folder
(in Public Folders or in a .pst file)
Move a copy to the specified folder
(in Public Folders or in a .pst file)

When you create a rule, the Rules Wizard stores the rule settings (conditions, actions, and exceptions) in a .rwz file with the same name as the user’s profile. For rules for incoming messages, it also stores that information in the Inbox folder itself, with an indicator of what profile created the rule. This means that the details of the rule are available to the server.

When a message arrives, the server compares it with the list of rules. If the server can execute the rule, it does so. If not, it places a deferred action message (DAM) in a hidden Deferred Action folder in the mailbox.

When the user runs Outlook, the client checks the Deferred Action folder and examines each DAM. If the rule was created with the current profile, Outlook carries out the actions indicated in the DAM. This helps explain why rules may fire in an order different from that listed in the Rules Wizard: If the user is not logged in, rules that run on the server execute first, while client-only rules don’t fire until the next time the user runs Outlook with the appropriate profile.

Note that if a mailbox is over its size limit, it cannot execute any rules that will send replies or forward items.


  1. henry says

    Hi There,

    I was reading your blog with interest, and I have a question that I would be extremely grateful if you could answer.

    I have lost my client only rules, because I answered ‘The Rules on this machine do not match the rules on your Exchange Server. Only one set of rules can be kept. You will usually want to keep the rules on the server. Which rules do you want to keep?’ incorrectly and have subsequently lost all my rules.

    I should have answered the question ‘Server’ but instead answered ‘Client’ and have now lost all my rules. Is there any way I can re-trace them and restore them?



    • Diane Poremsky says

      Sorry, no. Once the rules are cleared the only way to recover is if you happened to export a copy of your rules.

  2. Carlos M. says

    trés bien l'information... j'ai a problem avec le rules de mon ordenadour aussi, especificament evec le servitour exchange. la solutios peut etré la creation de les rules nouvement...

  3. Gunnar Heikkilä says

    I subscribe to a lot of mailing lists, and to be able to read my mail from my phone I have a server-based rule that moves all incoming list mails to a separate Exchange folder. This way my Inbox only contains mails adressed to me personally, and is thus usable also from the phone, for instance when I am travelling and my computer is not connected to Exchange.

    However, I have limited space on my Exchange account, so I also have a further cllient-based rule that moves the mails from the Exchange list folder to a similar folder on my PST file. Thus the mail is first moved from Inbox to Exchange/List (even if computer is not connected), and then (when my computer is active) from the Exchange/List to my PST/List folder.

    This has worked brilliantly for years, but now when switching to a new computer it suddenly stopped working. I noted that my client-based rules said "on another machine", so I edited it to be "for this machine only". What happens now is that the rules are sort of triggered, but the final move from Exchange/List to PST/List is now actually done as a copy, so mails are never moved from the Exchange/List folder. This is a pain in the ...!

    Why is this happening? As I said, it worked for years... I use Outlook 2003...

  4. Gunnar Heikkilä says

    Hi again, forgot to say that if I manually run the client-side rules, the mails are actually moved, not copied. But when the rules trigger by themselves the mails are only coped...

  5. Amandeep Singh says


    Can I delete server side outlook rules through some other client? Like thunderbird or some other mechanisms?


  6. Rob Lyons says

    Hi Diane,

    I am running outlook 2007 and have maybe 10 different email addresses that my outlook checks. All of the email addresses except one are pop3 accounts. The one that is an exchange client I have set up to check through the web mail access.

    I probably have over one hundred rules that sort mail by sender to their individual folders however, since I added the one exchange server, every time I add a rule it attempts to update the server even though I have it tagged as a client only rule. Of course because I have so many rules, the server will not accept the rules and turns them off which means I have to run them manually once or twice per day. This, as you can image, drives me crazy.

    How do I prevent the client based rules from attempting to update the server?

    Also, I do have "Use Cached Exchange Mode" turned on.

    Thanks for your help

    • Diane Poremsky says

      This is a toughie because Exchange takes over as master account. It controls all of the rules for itself and all POP3 accounts. You can't prevent it from updating the server. The only options are to put the exchange account in a separate profile, use imap instead of POP3, use a 3rd party rules engine. (I like Auto-Mate, which is discounted on Feb 7 at bitsdujour.)

  7. Mei says

    Hi Diane

    Hope you will be able to help me here a little bit. I'm trying to get our IT team to set up some server-side redirection rules (not forward) for emails received where the mailbox address does not appear in the To/CC fields i.e. BCC emails. However, I was advised that they are unable to setup any server-side redirection rules and can only setup forward rules?

    Are you able to advise if server-side redirection rules are possible? I need to retain the sender's address on the email and would like to be able to not use client-side rules since the rule wouldn't run when my outlook client is not open.

    Hope you can advise?


    • Diane Poremsky says

      Sorry for taking so long, I was on vacation when you posted this.

      What version of Exchange? Transport rules can redirect mail, but it might only work if the mail is from someone internal.

  8. Mike says

    Hi, I have set up a rule so that any email I send out, with a few exceptions, the emails are cc to my assistant. Outlook says that this rule is client only and Outlook has to be running in order to perform the rule. I close Outlook and log off my computer when not at the office and conduct emails through my mobile device using Touchdown app which does sync with my Outlook through our exchange server. However the cc rule does not perform when sending emails from my mobil device. How is it possible to enable this feature? Thanks, Mike

    • Diane Poremsky says

      Rules for sent messages only work from outlook, they won't work when you use other email clients. You'll need to enter the assistants address yourself when you use the mobile device, unless it can be configured to CC the address. Sorry.

  9. Jackie says

    Hi, I have set a rule to reply to all recieved emaials during a specific date range. I will be out of the office and will not have outlook running. When I finished making the rule it says it is a client only rule. How can I make this rule a server rule?

  10. Ken says

    Hello Diane

    we need a way to track all incoming emails from a big customer to move up to everyone’s email chain.

    If they can be flagged and color coded even better. Orange is the color signifying these urgent emails.

    All incoming emails will have the subject: “Urgent: 123456 quote request”

    We are using Exchange 2003 with office 2007 clients

    i have been able to make a rule with outlook to flag the subject.. but it seems it's only client side. is there a way to flag where the settings stay on the server side?

    What exactly are the rules that can be server based?


    • Diane Poremsky says

      Unfortunately, not. Rules that set flags and categories in Outlook are client side rules. Log into OWA and try setting rules there - I know in OWA 2013 I can assign categories (but not flags) but I'm not sure if that is possible in 2003.

  11. C says

    Is there a setting/way to tell Outlook to run all client-only rules on inbox whenever the application is opened. This way when I come in Monday morning and open Outlook, everything will be filed/classified correctly. Thanks. Diane, you rock!

  12. Larry Mackey says

    Is it possible to set a server side rule to make a copy of all mail coming into an office 365 mailbox to an archive folder or is there a better way to archive a copy of all mail as a company policy? For example if someone deletes or moved an email to a .PST we want to able to recover for 1 year.

    • Diane Poremsky says

      You can use journaling or mail flow > rules. Mail flow rules is better in some ways as you can copy them to a mailbox in the tenant - journaling won't work with a local mail, you need to use a mailbox outside your domain.

  13. Larry Mackey says

    Thanks, I found mail flow rules. What would be most appropriate for what we want is if I could build a rule that for each user made a copy of every incoming and outgoing message (all of them) into their online archive folders as set the folders as read only to the user (so they can't accidentally delete them) I guess an alternative is to extend saving deleted emails to say 1 year or whatever hold period we set as an archive period. RIght now was save copies for 3+ years (the + is until I run out of space)

    I am assuming there is a macro capability in Office 365 that I have not yet explored??

    • Diane Poremsky says

      The Outlook 2013 side of Office 365 has macro capability, same as the older versions of Outlook. I don't think you can set the online archive to read only - for starters, you won't be able to add anything to them. In place hold would be a better option - I think users can delete but they can't remove them from deleted recovery. See for more information. The recovery folder quota is 30 GB - more than enough for a few years of the average user.

  14. Tania says

    Hi Diane,
    I've written a simple script to copy an email and its attachments to a file share on a network drive. This script is called from a rule in Outlook. The issue is that I need to do the exact same thing on the Exchange server so the script runs even when Outlook is not open. Is this possible? The Exchange account the receives the emails is a shared account.

    Thanks for your help.

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