Since kernel 2.6.28, Linux uses a Split Least Recently Used (LRU) page replacement strategy. Pages with a filesystem source, such as program text or shared libraries belong to the file cache. Pages without filesystem backing are called anonymous pages, and consist of runtime data such as the stack space reserved for applications etc. Typically pages belonging to the file cache are cheaper to evict from memory (as these can simple be read back from disk when needed). Since anonymous pages have no filesystem backing, they must remain in memory as long as they are needed by a program unless there is swap space to store them to.
It is a common misconception that a swap partition would somehow slow down your system. Not having a swap partition does not mean that the kernel won't evict pages from memory, it just means that the kernel has fewer choices in regards to which pages to evict. The amount of swap available will not affect how much it is used.
Linux can cope with the absence of a swap space because, by default, the kernel memory accounting policy may overcommit memory. The downside is that when physical memory is exhausted, and the kernel cannot swap anonymous pages to disk, the out-of-memory-killer (OOM-killer) mechanism will start killing off memory-hogging "rogue" processes to free up memory for other processes.
vm.swappiness option is a modifier that changes the balance between swapping out file cache pages in favour of anonymous pages. The file cache is given an arbitrary priority value of 200 from which
vm.swappiness modifier is deducted (
file_prio=200-vm.swappiness). Anonymous pages, by default, start out with 60 (
anon_prio=vm.swappiness). This means that, by default, the priority weights stand moderately in favour of anonymous pages (
file_prio=200-60=140). The behaviour is defined in
mm/vmscan.c in the kernel source tree.
100, the priorities would be equal (
anon_prio=100). This would make sense for an I/O heavy system if it is not wanted that pages from the file cache being evicted in favour of anonymous pages.
Conversely setting the
0 will prevent the kernel from evicting anonymous pages in favour of pages from the file cache. This might be useful if programs do most of their caching themselves, which might be the case with some databases. In desktop systems this might improve interactivity, but the downside is that I/O performance will likely take a hit.
The default value has most likely been chosen as an approximate middleground between these two extremes. As with any performance parameter, adjusting
vm.swappiness should be based on benchmark data comparable to real workloads, not just a gut feeling.