2 legged vs 3 legged OAuth

Had a question come in from a customer that centered around understanding the difference between 2 legged and 3 legged OAuth so I thought I would write a little about it. I short 2 legged and 3 legged OAuth refers to the number of players involved in the OAuth dance but let’s explain each.

3 legged OAuth is used when you as a user wants to allow an application (i.e. Salesforce) to access a service (i.e. Azure) on your behalf without the application (Salesforce knowing your credentials for the service (Azure). This is accomplished by me (the user) being redirected by the application (Salesforce) to the service (Azure) where I log in directly, I obtain a code that the application (Salesforce) can use to obtain an access token for the service (Azure) out of band (i.e. the application contacts the service directly). Key is that I the user am involved because I need to authenticate to the service (Azure) and the application is afterwards able to impersonate me towards the service.

2 legged OAuth is used when an application needs to access a service using a service account (e.g. an App Registration as it’s called in Azure). The key here is that the application has all the information it needs to authenticate to the service. In 2 legged OAuth the application makes a single call to the service to basically exchange credentials (username/password, client_id/client_secret, Json Web Token (JWT)) for an access token. As an aside there is usually no way to get a refresh token issued in a 2 legged OAuth dance which is fair as the application could just perform the 2 legged OAuth dance again to get a new access token hence no need for a refresh token.

Looking back towards Salesforce and Named Credentials which is the way we recommend customers manage credentials for accessing services outside Salesforce. In Named Credentials you can use 3 legged OAuth if you selected “OAuth 2.0” for “Authentication Protocol” and 2 legged OAuth if you select “JWT” for “Authentication Protocol”.

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