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How to manage Exchange hybrid mail flow rules

Duplicating your existing transport rule collection won't work when you move to an Exchange hybrid deployment. Learn how to set up a proper mail flow with these tips.

An Exchange hybrid deployment generally provides a good experience for the administrator, but it can be found lacking in a few areas, such as transport rules.

Transport rules -- also called mail flow rules -- identify and take actions on all messages as they move through the transport stack on the Exchange servers. Exchange hybrid mail flow rules can be tricky to set up properly to ensure all email is reviewed, no matter if mailboxes are on premises or in Exchange Online in the cloud.

Transport rules solve many compliance-based problems that arise in a corporate message deployment. They add disclaimers or signatures to messages. They funnel messages that meet specific criteria for approval before they leave your control. They trigger encryption or other protections. It's important to understand how Exchange hybrid mail flow rules operate when your organization runs a mixed environment.

Mail flow rules and Exchange hybrid setups

The power of transport rules stems from their consistency. For an organization with compliance requirements, transport rules are a reliable way to control all messages that meet defined criteria. Once you develop a transport rule for certain messages, there is some comfort in knowing that a transport rule will evaluate every email. At least, that is the case when your organization is only on premises or only in Office 365.

Things change when your organization moves to a hybrid Exchange configuration. While mail flow rules evaluate every message that passes through the transport stack, that does not mean that on-premises transport rules will continue to evaluate messages sent to or from mailboxes housed in Office 365 and vice versa.

No two organizations are alike, which means there is more than one resolution for working with Exchange hybrid mail flow rules.

Depending on your routing configuration, email may go from an Exchange Online mailbox and out of your environment without an evaluation by the on-premises transport rules. It's also possible that both the mail flow rules on premises and the other set of mail flow rules in Office 365 will assess every email, which may cause more problems than not having any messages evaluated.

To avoid trouble, you need to consider the use of transport rules both for on-premises and for online mailboxes and understand how the message routing configuration within your hybrid environment will affect how Exchange applies those mail flow rules.

Message routing in Exchange hybrid deployments

A move to an Exchange hybrid deployment requires two sets of transport rules. Your organization needs to decide which mail flow rules will be active in which environment and how the message routing configuration you choose affects those transport rules.

All message traffic that passes through an Exchange deployment will be evaluated by the transport rules in that environment, but the catch is that an Exchange hybrid deployment consists of two different environments, at least when they relate to transport rules. A message sent from an on-premises mailbox to another on-premises mailbox generally won't pass though the transport stack, and, thus, the mail flow rules, in Exchange Online. The opposite is also true: Messages sent from an online mailbox to another online mailbox in the same tenant will not generally pass though the on-premises transport rules. Copying the mail flow rules from your on-premises Exchange organization into your Exchange Online tenant does not solve this problem, but that can lead to some messages being handled by the same transport rule twice.

When you configure an Exchange hybrid deployment, you need to decide where your mail exchange (MX) record points. Some organizations choose to have the MX record point to the existing on-premises Exchange servers and then route message traffic to mailboxes in Exchange Online via a send connector. Other organizations choose to have the MX record point to Office 365 and then flow to the on-premises servers.

There are more decisions to be made about the way email leaves your organization as well. By default, an email sent from an Exchange Online mailbox to an external recipient will exit Office 365 directly to the internet without passing through the on-premises Exchange servers. This means that transport rules, which are intended to evaluate email traffic before it leaves your organization, may never have that opportunity.

Exchange hybrid mail flow rules differ for each organization

No two organizations are alike, which means there is more than one resolution for working with Exchange hybrid mail flow rules.

For organizations that want to copy transport rules from on-premises Exchange Server into Exchange Online, you can use PowerShell. The Export-TransportRuleCollection PowerShell cmdlet works on all currently supported versions of on-premises Exchange Server. This cmdlet creates an XML file that you can load into your Exchange Online tenant with another cmdlet called Import-TransportRuleCollection. This is a good first step to ensure all mail flow rules are the same in both environments, but that's just part of the work.

Transport rules, like all Exchange Server features, have evolved over time. They may not work the same in all supported versions of on-premises Exchange Server and Exchange Online. Simply exporting and importing your transport rules may cause unexpected behavior.

One way to resolve this is to duplicate transport rules in both environments by adding two more transport rules on each side. The first new transport rule checks the message header and tells the transport stack -- both on premises and in the cloud -- that the message has already been though the transport rules in the other environment. This rule should include a statement to stop processing any further transport rules. A second new transport rule should add to the header with an indication that the message has already been though the transport rules in one environment. This is a difficult setup to get right and requires a good deal of care to implement properly if you choose to go this route.

I expect that the fairly new hybrid organization transfer feature of the Hybrid Configuration Wizard will eventually handle the export and import of transport rules, but that won't solve the routing issues or the issues with running duplicate rules.

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